U.S. becomes top wind producer, solar next

LONDON (Reuters) - The United States overtook Germany as the biggest producer of wind power last year, new figures showed, and will likely take the lead in solar power this year, analysts said on Monday.

Power-generating windmill turbines form a wind farm on Backbone Mountain near Thomas, West Virginia August 28, 2006. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Even before an expected “Obama bounce” from a new President who has vowed to boost clean energy, U.S. wind power capacity surged 50 percent last year to 25 gigwatts (GW) -- enough to power more than five million homes.

Political and business leaders worldwide have urged “green growth” spending on clean energy to fight both recession and climate change.

German wind power capacity reached nearly 24 GW, placing it second ahead of Spain and fourth-placed China, which doubled its installed wind power for the forth year running, said the Brussels-based Global Wind Energy Council.

“Governments must send a strong and unequivocal signal that the age of fossil fuels is over,” said Steve Sawyer, secretary general of GWEC.

Global wind power production reached 121 GW at the end of 2008, growing by about 29 percent. New U.S. wind projects accounted for about 42 percent of the country’s total new power-producing capacity added last year, GWEC said, underlining its challenge to more traditional forms of power generation, including coal and natural gas.

The wind sector is now suffering from a financial crisis which has dried up project finance and a sharp fall in oil prices which has weakened its competitiveness compared to gas, but it is aided by subsidies such as a guaranteed price premium in Germany and Spain.

Spanish wind power business group AEE said on Monday that it expected similar growth in 2009 as last year.

The U.S. Senate Finance Committee last week approved some $31 billion in tax breaks and other incentives to boost alternative energy supplies and efficiency as part of the Obama administration’s much bigger U.S. economic stimulus plan.

Obama wants to double U.S. alternative energy output over three years.

The United States is also expected to overtake Germany this year as the world’s biggest producer of solar power, aided by its far sunnier climate, Jefferies analyst Michael McNamara told Reuters on Monday.

European Union leaders agreed at the end of last year that the bloc should get a fifth of all its energy from renewable sources by 2020 compared with about 10 percent now.

Reporting by Gerard Wynn, Editing by Marguerita Choy