Colorado wind power is rising with 1,880 huge turbines erected across the prairie, twisting white blades as long as soccer fields, a cleaner source of energy replacing fossil fuels.
It has reached the point where the wind turbines generated 67 percent of Xcel Energy’s Colorado-made electricity at one point in November and 54 percent during two 24-hour periods in October — feats unmatched around the nation, industry officials said Tuesday.
Falling costs, a state mandate, a federal subsidy and sheer momentum are driving the shift to renewable energy.
The proliferation of turbines here — doubling the number in 2009 — reflects a takeoff of wind power nationally that has cut carbon dioxide emissions by 132 million tons, American Wind Energy Association research director Michael Groggin said.
“That’s the equivalent of taking 28 million cars off the road, and this is going to help Colorado comply with the Clean Power Plan,” Groggin said.
Shifting from coal and gas to wind power “will help bring the United States into compliance with international climate change commitments. It will show that the U.S. can be a leader,” he said.
Politicians and investors are embracing the shift. Long a backer of oil and gas “fracking” along Colorado’s ecologically delicate Front Range, Gov. John Hickenlooper on Tuesday launched a national industry forum at a Vestas Americas turbine factory north of Denver in Brighton — one of four Vestas plants in the state that employ 3,700 workers.
“This is a state issue for us. We view it as one of our highest priorities,” Hickenlooper said.
Colorado initially looked to natural gas as bridge away from coal-fired electricity, Hickenlooper said. “Wind is going to take an increasingly large share of that as well.”
Today, “wind turbine technician” ranks as the fastest-growing occupation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Utility giant Xcel Energy is playing a key role, relying on wind turbines at 21 wind farms to supply electricity.
“We’ve cultivated wind as our most cost-effective renewable energy option because we recognize that this source of energy is not only a benefit to the environment but also a major economic driver for the state,” Xcel’s Colorado operations president David Eves said. “Our plan is to expand our wind offerings to provide hundreds of new jobs for Coloradans, make a billion dollars in new investments, keep energy costs low for our customers, and improve the environment.”
On Tuesday, Eves and Vestas Americas chief Chris Brown revealed they’re poised to propose Colorado’s largest wind farm on the eastern prairie. That project, if approved by the Public Utilities Commission, would add 300 more wind turbines and produce 600 megawatts of electricity.
Congress has extended the federal government subsidy for the wind power industry until the end of this year, incentivizing more expansion before a gradual phase-out.
Xcel supplies 65 percent of Colorado residents and currently generates 2,650 megawatts of electricity from wind. In comparison, more than half Xcel’s electricity comes from coal. Solar power — rooftop, utility-scale and “solar gardens” — gives 1 to 2 percent of electricity.
Colorado lawmakers in 2004 initiated change by passing a renewable energy standard requiring public utilities to use wind and solar to produce some of their electricity. Lawmakers twice have increased that percentage. The state now requires use of renewable sources to generate 30 percent of electricity by 2020.
Xcel officials said they’ll reach that goal easily, already averaging in “the high 20s.” The surges where 67 percent and 54 percent of electricity came from wind occurred on windy days when overall electricity use by residents was relatively low.
Overall, Colorado utilities on average produce 14 percent of electricity from wind turbines, ranking the state among national leaders. Iowa leads at 31 percent.
One reason wind has advanced is forecasting. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meteorologists provide increasingly precise support for utilities. They analyze energy potential from wind and try to give utility grid operators several hours, and sometimes days, of notice when wind will be strong.
The improving accuracy of wind forecasts lets the grid operators adjust use of electricity favoring wind over coal and other available sources.
Industry analysts said wind’s role will continue to expand.
And Vestas chief executive Brown said the massive fiberglass blades may expand, too. At the manufacturing plan in Brighton, hundreds of workers build parts for the wind turbines, which then move by rail nationwide. They work for the Danish company, Vestas, which also runs plants in Pueblo and Windsor, using a central U.S. location to ease transport costs and supply turbines widely for the boom.
While installation of more transmission lines will be essential, shifting to clean energy in the future will hinge on “capturing more wind” with those blades, Brown said.
Even a one meter lengthening of blades that now stretch 100 meters form tip-to-tip — roughly the length of three 747 aircraft — could more than double the electricity produced, he said.
“We want to have taller towers and bigger blades.”