The winds of change power renewable energy growth in California

I drove through Tehachapi a few weeks ago as dawn was breaking. Snow flurries fluttered as I watched the sun rise over the thousands of turbines that line the hills along Highway 58, and I hearkened back to the 1980s when I was a newspaper reporter in Palm Springs.

The wind energy industry was one of my beats. The blustery pass along Interstate 10 was just beginning to sprout turbines, and I found them fascinating. Today, that pass near Palm Springs is one of the top three wind-energy sites in the state - along with Tehachapi in Kern County and Altamont Pass in Alameda County.

Wind energy accounts for about 5% of California's total electricity needs. Capacity has nearly doubled since 2002, with more than 900 megawatts installed in 2011 alone - more than in any other state. Most of those installations were near Tehachapi, according to the California Wind Energy Association (CalWEA).

All that wind will help California reach - and possibly exceed - its goal of 33 percent renewable energy by 2020. This story, which focuses on solar power, quotes an advisor to Gov. Brown saying the state could double that 33 percent mark.

(As a side note, the same article notes that Kern County also is becoming a leading solar center, thanks to large utility-scale projects proposed in the high deserts not far from Tehachapi.)

All this renewable power leads to other questions, like, how will it all be transmitted? The keeper of the grid has some thoughts about that here.

Whether the wind continues to blow at the back of the wind-energy industry in California remains to be seen. Projects in Kern, Solano, Riverside, Imperial and San Diego counties are expected to add 1,200 megawatts of power and create 1,000 construction jobs in 2012, but 2013 could see a slowdown if Congress fails to extend a tax credit that is before the Senate, says Nancy Rader, executive director of CalWEA.

"We need Congress to extend the wind energy production tax credit very soon to keep up that momentum," Rader said recently.

Nationally, things started slowing in 2010, when the number of new wind power fell 49% from 2009. "Clearly, the financial crisis crippled the U.S. economy and, along with it, the wind industry," PIKE Research says in a fourth-quarter 2011 report.

The United States is the second-largest wind market in the world. As a region, North America was third in the number of installations in 2009, and is expected to fall further behind Asia Pacific and Europe, PIKE reports.

Despite that, PIKE forecasts that about $145 billion worth of turbines will be installed offshore and onshore in North America by 2017. Moreover, wind energy has reached grid parity in some parts of the U.S. market – a trend that will continue.

Video from U.S. Department of Energy