Minnesota continued to be one of the top wind power states in 2016, and Xcel Energy the nation’s top wind energy utility.
The annual report by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), released Wednesday in St. Paul, showed wind power had a strong year nationally, with generating capacity increasing 11 percent or 8,203 megawatts. A megawatt is a million watts, and 2016 marked the second consecutive year the industry topped 8,000 megawatts after a couple of lean years.
Wind farm construction has been buoyed by a new round of federal tax credits combined with better technology that is allowing wind turbines to generate more power.
“You have a unique opportunity to buy wind that is cheaper than fossil fuel alternatives,” Xcel CEO Ben Fowke said during the industry’s presentation at the State Capitol. “The fuel of the future is literally on sale today.”
Minneapolis-based Xcel, which operates in the wind-rich Upper Midwest and Southwest, was the largest wind purchaser among U.S. utilities for the 12th consecutive year.
Meanwhile, Minnesota in 2016 ranked sixth among states for wind energy production, churning out 10,637 megawatt hours of power — enough electricity for 983,000 homes. Minnesota moved up from seventh place in 2015.
“You have a great resource,” Tom Kiernan, CEO of AWEA, said of Minnesota. “You have a lot of strong, steady wind.”
The leading state in 2016 for wind power by far was Texas, which generated 57,551 megawatt hours, enough power for 5.32 million homes. Iowa was second with 20,049 megawatt hours.
However, Iowa ranked first among states for wind energy as a percentage of total electricity generation: 35 percent. Minnesota placed sixth in that category, getting 17.7 percent of its energy generation from wind in 2016, up from 17 percent last year, according to the AWEA report. North Dakota was fifth at 21.5 percent; South Dakota was second at 30.3 percent.
Wind power leaders in St. Paul Wednesday also touted job creation by the industry. It added nearly 15,000 jobs last year, bringing total wind industry employment to more than 102,000 across all 50 states, Kiernan said. About 4,000 people work in the wind power industry in Minnesota.
The state is also home to the nation’s two largest wind energy construction and engineering firms, Avon-based Blattner Energy and Mortenson, a multiline construction firm based in Golden Valley.
“The wind industry has been extremely important to our success,” said Doug Fredrickson, operations vice president at Blattner, which has 2,800 renewable energy employees in several states.
In 2016, wind power made up 5.5 percent of U.S. electricity generation, up from 4.7 percent a year earlier, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Natural gas made up 33.6 percent of generation in 2016; coal, 30.2 percent; nuclear, 19.6 percent; and solar, 1.4 percent.
In 2015, Congress extended wind energy production tax credits, with wind projects launching last year getting 100 percent credit. The credit phases down until it disappears by 2020. The tax credit extension had led to a bevy of new project announcements by Xcel and other utilities.
Xcel in the next several years will add 11 new wind farms with a capacity of 3,400 megawatts, Fowke said. Through Xcel’s eight-state service area, the percentage of total electricity the company generates from wind is expected to climb from 19 percent now to 34 percent by 2021.
Xcel gets wind power through long-term power purchase agreements or directly from wind farms that it owns. It had 6,686 megawatts of wind power capacity in 2016, according to AWEA.
Only one other power company came close to Xcel, Des Moines-based and Warren Buffett-affiliated Berkshire Hathaway Energy. It had 6,405 megawatts of wind capacity.
Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003