Breezing In

How Spain's Iberdrola Renovables is meeting American demand for wind power, the leading source of new electricity in the U.S.

  • Paul Langrock / Zenit / Laif / Redux

    An Iberdrola wind farm near Guadix in southern Spain

    Some 150 miles North of Phoenix, on the edge of Arizona's Tonto National Forest — a stark high-desert landscape of burnt-orange mesas, saguaro cacti and ponderosa pines — sits the state's first commercial-scale wind farm. The giant turbines of the Dry Lake Wind Power Project resemble the creatures that literary hero Don Quixote jousted against in La Mancha. Which is fitting, since this wind farm is owned by Iberdrola Renovables, the world's biggest producer of wind power, based in Valencia, Spain. With operations in 23 countries, including Britain, Romania and Brazil, Iberdrola Renovables is rolling hard and fast, nowhere more so than in the United States. Chairman Ignacio Galán could not be more effusive about his company's prospects there, calling the Obama Administration's support of renewables an "unprecedented success." The company's rapid-fire growth was made possible by President Obama's decision to invest heavily in renewable energy to fight climate change — and recession — under his economic-recovery plan. As part of that plan, Iberdrola received over $1 billion in cash grants from the U.S. Treasury, the biggest sum ever awarded to a renewable company anywhere.

    Wind is still a relatively small part of the U.S. energy grid: it makes up just 2.4% of total supply. (Renewables as a whole make up 11%, with hydro at 7% and the balance coming from solar, geothermal and biomass.) President Obama's latest target is to have 80% of U.S. energy needs supplied by clean sources by 2035. Environmentalists are pushing for as much as 35% of that to come from renewables. Hydropower is not expected to move the needle, because this would require construction of hugely expensive megadams with questionable environmental impacts. Solar is unlikely to contribute much without a technological breakthrough that makes it price competitive. That leaves wind to do the heavy lifting.

    Fortunately, there's plenty of it in the U.S., which, along with Canada, Russia and China, is one of the prime natural sources of wind power in the world. Last year alone in the U.S., Iberdrola brought a total of 1,043 megawatts of new wind capacity onstream in places like Washington, Oregon and Texas — enough to power nearly 700,000 households. And so far this year, U.S. output makes up over 40% of Iberdrola Renovables' total energy production. Last month, Galán flew to Washington to meet with Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. During these meetings, Galán announced his intention to continue expanding rapidly in the U.S. at least until the end of 2012, by which time he is expected to have invested $6 billion.

    Many other countries are falling in line. The fact is that wind has emerged as the hottest source of green electrical power globally, and its momentum is only going to build in the wake of Japan's Fukushima Daiichi power-plant disaster, which has forced people to reassess the dangers surrounding nuclear installations. "Wind is the most likely candidate for driving the long-awaited shift toward renewable energy," says Daniel Weiss, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

    In the past four years, wind has become the leading source of new electrical power in the U.S., exceeding coal and nuclear combined. In some E.U. countries, including Denmark, Portugal and Spain, wind already accounts for anywhere from 11% to 20% of power generation. Meanwhile, the E.U. is working to double the share of energy derived from wind and other renewable sources, such as solar, geothermal and biomass, to 20% by 2020.

    The net result is that last year, wind energy across the world reduced CO[subscript 2] emissions by an amount equal to 26% of the target for developed countries under the Kyoto Protocol, the U.N.'s action plan for fighting climate change. The fact that Iberdrola Renovables, which has morphed into a $3 billion juggernaut from a standing start just 10 years ago, has come to dominate this fast-growing sector is due in large part to government support. Spain was among the first countries in the world to encourage the development of renewable energy with government subsidies and targets. (Today, on particularly breezy days, wind-power generation surpasses all other electricity sources in Spain.)

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