In early 2009, a look back at 2008 saw wind energy posting record numbers of growth in the United States. In terms of new installed capacity, new project announcements, project expansions, and manufacturing capability, 2008 was the banner year for the leading form of alternative energy options. 8,350 megawatts of  new wind energy connected to the grid — a 50% increase on 2007 — and employment by the wind sector grew by 35,000. At the time, with the recession deepening, most analysts expected 2009 to fall well short of the previous year’s figures with equally dismal job losses to match. Surprisingly, things didn’t quite turn out that way.

The New York Time's Growth Chart

The New York Times' Growth Chart

Aided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the wind energy sector grew by 39% in 2009. With an additional 9,992 megawatts, wind generated enough electricity to power over 2.4 million homes and cut back on millions of cubic tons of carbon emissions. Wind was also one of the biggest contributors of new energy last year, closely matching growth in natural gas. The two energy options combined for 80% of all new electricity generation in the country.

Stimulus money from the ARRA came in the form of cash grants that helped dislodge wind projects that had become stuck in development, unable to raise capital in the soured investment climate. Without these new investment options, wind may have seen a dramatic blowback in production. The American Wind Energy Association had predicted up to a 50% slowdown in growth but cited government action as a critical preventative measure in their quarterly release:

“The clear commitment by the President to create clean energy jobs and the swift implementation of ARRA incentives by the Administration in mid-summer reversed the [worsening economic] situation. Recovery Act incentives spurred the growth of construction, operations and maintenance, and management jobs, helping the industry to save and create jobs in those sectors and shine as a bright spot in the economy.”

Despite the impressive figures and strengthening performance through the fourth quarter of 2009, AWEA went on to temper its good news with a cautionary warning. Investment in wind manufacturing has decreased which resulted in net job losses for the manufacturing sector. It may be, as the New York Times observed, that growth in 2009 came as a carryover from 2008’s momentum and that continued growth will lag without additional incentives from legislature in the form of a national Renewable Energy Standard (RES). 29 states have already enacted their own RES policies but a cue from the federal government could open up more investments in domestic manufacturing. Lack of transmission capacity is also seen as a long-term growth inhibitor.

Growth in 2009 lifted output from wind energy over 35,000 megawatts and has brought the U.S. close to generating 2 percent of its electricity from wind turbines. That may sound marginal, but output has increased sevenfold from 2002 levels and is becoming an ever larger presence in the country’s energy portfolio. It could be difficult for wind to top 2009’s figures in 2010, but the same was said after 2008. Here’s hoping 2010 will again surpass expectations.