Wind Energy Blows Through Economic Downturn

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Despite the global credit crunch and decreased energy demand in many countries, more wind energy was installed last year than ever before.

Wind power capacity worldwide increased 31 percent in 2009, with an additional 37,500 megawatts installed, according to the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC). In 2008, the previous record-setting year, an estimated 27,051 megawatts were installed.

The United States led installations in 2008, but China emerged as the wind power leader in 2009. The rapidly industrializing country doubled its wind generation capacity for the fifth consecutive year, adding some 13,000 megawatts, or a third of installations worldwide in 2009. China installed 6,300 megawatts in 2008.

"China is not waiting to revamp its clean energy economy," said Virginia Sonntag-O'Brien, head of the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21) secretariat, at the Renewable Energy Technology Conference last week in Washington, D.C. "Things are happening in China now at a pace that has everyone spinning."

China's wind energy boom suggests that the government considers renewable energy as a long-term investment for the country's development. Many of the installations boast a generation capacity that currently exceeds local electricity demands. "The Chinese have finally found an industry where they can build far into the future and not have all of that [production] absorbed," said Louis Schwartz, president of China Strategies, a consulting firm based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The United States continues to lead the world in total installed wind capacity, adding nearly 10,000 megawatts in 2009, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). After beginning the year with fears that wind power development would drop by 50 percent, the industry nearly tied with the natural gas industry as the leading source of new electricity generation in the country. The two industries combined accounted for some 80 percent of U.S. capacity additions.

"We are, for the last several years in a row, seeing this sector take off in manufacturing and added electricity capacity," said AWEA CEO Denise Bode in a conference call with reporters. "We are one of the only bright spots in this economy."

In Europe, wind energy prevailed as the continent's most popular new source of electricity generation for the second year in a row. The European Wind Energy Association estimates that the region installed 10,048 megawatts of new wind power capacity in 2009.

Overall, clean energy investments, not limited to renewable energy, totaled $145 billion in 2009 - 6.5 percent less than the all-time high of $155 billion in 2008, according to New Energy Finance. While many venture capitalists and private equity firms closed their wallets to energy investments, governments worldwide supported renewables as part of national economic recovery plans.

The resiliency of clean technology investments in the face of the economic downturn demonstrates that the sector has become the "third leg of the venture capital stool, right alongside information technology and life sciences," said Ira Ehrenpreis, a general partner with the investment firm Technology Partners. "It's the fastest growing [investment sector] in venture capital."

GWEC estimates that the 158,000 megawatts of wind energy installations worldwide employ some 500,000 people and avoid emissions of 204 million tons of carbon dioxide a year.

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

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