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 Wind farm in a cornfield in Paw-Paw, Illinois, off Interstate 39.

Local experts say Illinois wind power will weather the storm

by Hamsa Ramesha
Oct 23, 2008


Hamsa Ramesha/Medill



Hamsa Ramesha/Medill


Despite declining oil prices and fading interest in wind power across the nation, local experts are confident that Illinois won’t bow down to competitive pressures.

According to a third quarter report released Wednesday by the American Wind Energy Association, 2008 marks the fourth consecutive year of growth for wind power. New wind capacity across the nation totaled 1,389 megawatts for the quarter, bringing total new wind capacity added this year to 4,204 megawatts.

This leaves plenty of opportunity, according to the AWEA report, for U.S. wind energy to beat last year's total additions of 5,294 megawatts, perhaps reaching 7,500 megawatts, which would represent a 42 percent increase. That’s enough electricity for about 2.2 million homes.

However, due to the delayed renewal of production tax credits and consequent lack of funding as well as the financial crisis, the outlook remains dim for the industry over the next few years. A bill passed recently by Congress renewed wind production credits for only one year, contrasting sharply with its eight-year renewal of investment credits. Capital already committed to the industry will suffice to keep current wind farm projects open for the remainder of the year, but beyond that the outlook is uncertain.

It is rising costs of equipment such as generators and delays in securing the equipment that are truly concerning, said Robert Vogl, president of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association.

“The big firms are confident that they’re going to be able to raise the capital to create wind farms,” Vogl said. “There’s a possibility that the smaller firms that might not be able to do that.”

According to the AWEA, wind-power production is expected to slow nationwide in 2009, discouraging any new construction projects. Currently there are approximately 8,000 megawatts under construction, expected to finish by the end of 2008 or early 2009.

Despite this uncertain future on the national level, Illinois wind experts are positive about the state’s capacity for growth.

“I would say in the next two to three years Illinois will have over 1,000 megawatts of wind power,” said Brock Terry, an analyst for the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University. “It’s not so much that we have superior winds in Illinois, it’s that we have such a great electricity infrastructure.”

Illinois currently has about 744 megawatts of wind power, a 6.4 percent increase from 2007, according to the AWEA Web site. An additional 171 megawatts are expected to be available once projects under construction are completed. Illinois ranks eighth in the nation for existing capacity, but 16th for overall potential capacity.

The AWEA Web site lists 11 completed wind power projects in Illinois as of Sept. 30, and one more has gone on line this month.  Three more are on the way, expected to finish by year end or early 2009:  EcoGrove and Providence Heights in northern Illinois and Rail Splitter in central Illinois.

Terry is also confident that wind power will be back in business nationally and “see a big booming period” even with the current economic conditions.

“Now that oil prices are down, the wind isn’t as profitable,” he said. “I think in the long term, oil will be back up again, natural gas will shoot up and that will validate the other renewables.”

Kathy Belyeu, the manager of Industry Information Services at AWEA, agreed that in the long term, wind power will make it through.

“We saw a lot of growth in 2007 and it boosted Illinois to where it is, eighth in the country in terms of capacity,” she said.

Belyeu pointed to the U.S. Department of Energy’s plan of increasing wind power to provide 20 percent of U.S. electricity by 2030, and expressed confidence that despite the present interruption, the nation is still on track to reach that goal. Released in July 2008, the plan also foresees Illinois as a major player in the wind power industry.

As for now, Belyeu said, “The credit crisis will definitely take a hit. In the mid-term, wind will start to recover and financial options will start to loosen up.”