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What’s Up with Wind?

In today's edition of This Week in Climate, we look at ups and downs for wind power.
Julian Moore
Sep 19, 2023 9 min read
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Wind energy is and will continue to be a pillar of the transition to renewable energy– but you wouldn’t know it by following headlines in recent weeks.

The emerging wind energy market in Europe and the United States has been throttled by supply chain issues this year, driving up costs and pushing many projects out of profitability.

The troubles reached a new low in the UK this week when an auction generated no sales of offshore wind contracts, prompting some experts to call it the “biggest clean energy disaster in years.”

Nevertheless, wind’s long-term prospects still leave room for optimism. European leaders are working on legislation to further fast-track permitting and improve auctions, and new installations are still trending upward globally. But as the global wind industry builds on its 9% annual growth rate, it will have to reckon with some new, longer-term challenges.


Another challenge for wind is the mounting evidence that wind turbines can cause their own environmental impacts when built without the health of their surrounding ecosystem in mind.

That’s the case in Brazil, where the proliferation of wind farms in the Caatinga region may be driving several species of big cats dangerously close to extinction. The Caatinga is a semi-arid region in the northeast of the country, home to endemic species of big cats that are adapted to dry heat, unlike their better-known cousins in the tropical Amazon. Economic development is generally prohibited in their habitat, but wind farms are an exception since they are considered eco-friendly development.

But the construction of wind farms sets off a chain reaction in the local ecosystem that puts unique pressure on big cats.

Pumas and jaguars are especially sensitive to changes in their environment, so they flee once construction begins near their habitat or fresh water sources, which are especially hard to come by in the Caatinga climate.

The big cats subsequently roam for miles to find more food and water, leading to contact with humans in rural villages, where they are shot or trapped to protect the livestock that villagers depend on.

A tragic irony is that since jaguar and puma sightings have become more common, locals are less likely to believe that they are actually endangered and need to be protected. Since 2009, the population of jaguars and pumas have fallen 40% and 20%, respectively and there are an estimated 30 pumas left in the region.

The dwindling population of predators could also lead to an explosion further down the food chain, as armadillos, deer and wild boar are free to reproduce without the threat of pumas and jaguars. That will have unpredictable effects on the ecosystem, but it is likely to impact biodiversity across the region. Experts say that a fix for future wind farms could be as simple as not arranging turbines in long, straight lines that cut big cats off from supplies.

The situation with wind energy in Brazil is a prime example of what the European Court of Auditors called the “green dilemma” for wind developers.

It’s also yet another example of the shortcomings of the low-resolution framework of sustainability that lumps climate change, biodiversity and other environmental problems into one umbrella term.

The biodiversity and climate crises are simultaneous and overlapping issues that are nonetheless distinct, and employing the solution for one can negatively impact the other when good intentions take the place of rigorous, science-based environmental reviews.

Tax Credit Trading

For all its warts, the growing wind energy sector in the United States is still playing a major role in one of the Inflation Reduction Act’s hidden success stories.

A provision of the 2022 climate law allowed clean energy tax credits to be traded for the first time, leading to an unforeseen advantage for funding renewable projects.

The provision solved a long-standing problem for renewable tax credits.

Tax credits can only be used to deduct from taxes that a company owes. Since many renewable energy projects don’t turn a profit for several years, small or early-stage companies generate tax credits without a significant tax bill to reduce.

A provision of the Inflation Reduction Act changes now allows developers to trade those directly to bigger companies who could use the tax relief, giving solar and wind developers cash to develop more projects. Nonprofit organizations can also sell their credits back to the government at 100% of their original value, while traded credits tend to get 85-95 cents on the dollar.

Wind energy has been the main beneficiary so far. In August, Bank of America spent $580 million to acquire tax credits from a wind developer, and wind figures to be a steady segment of the pipeline for future trades.

Of course, the growth of the credit market value can be a good or a bad thing, depending which side of the aisle you see it from.

The expected value of renewable energy credits under the IRA has grown to $663 billion between 2023 and 2033, due in large part to the expanding trade market. But that figure is well above the anticipated cost of $270 billion over 10 years as anticipated by the Joint Tax Committee when the IRA was passed last year.

That has made the renewable energy tax credits a target among conservatives in Washington, who have targeted the credits in ongoing efforts to repeal the IRA piece by piece.

By the same token, renewable energy proponents say that a risk with a free-flowing credit market is that oil companies could just as easily buy the credits to greenwash their emissions.

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The Author

Julian Moore