A Monday report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration indicated that utility-scale wind electric generating capacity has surpassed hydroelectric generating capacity at the end of 2016. There are now wind projects capable of producing 81,312 megawatts of electricity online compared to hydroelectric dams capable of producing 79,985 megawatts of power.
The fall of hydroelectric generation from its perch as the nation's top source of renewable electricity may have been inevitable. Its operating capacity has mostly flattened out since the mid-1980s, according to EIA data.
"I'm not sure when the last time was that we added significant hydroelectric generation, but it's been decades," Avondale Partners analyst Michael Morosi said. "There are only so many rivers that you can dam, and we've pretty much done it. The outlook for new hydroelectric capacity is very, very limited in the United States."
The growth outlook for wind power is a very different story. Data from the American Wind Energy Association show that total installed U.S. wind capacity has more than doubled since 2010, from 40,283 megawatts to 82,183 megawatts at the end of 2016.
Utility-scale wind projects just so happen to be concentrated in states that broke for Donald Trump during the U.S. presidential election. Per the AWEA, Texas leads the way among all states regarding installed wind capacity at 20,321 megawatts. Midwest and Plains states like Iowa (6,917 MW), Oklahoma (6,645), Kansas (4,451) and North Dakota (2,746) all have significant wind market penetration as well.
The heavy concentration of wind power in Republican-controlled states may mean that Trump and the GOP leave credits for the industry well enough alone when they pursue their tax reform agenda. It also doesn't hurt that Secretary of Energy Rick Perry is the former governor of Texas.
"I'm just not sure that there's the appetite or the incentive to change that," Morosi said. "At this point, the job gains for wind are sufficiently widespread such that you're going to have opposition from a lot of sectors outside of maybe Kentucky and West Virginia, in the areas that are most dependent on coal."
The federal government offers a renewable energy production tax credit (PTC) of 1.84 cents per kilowatt hour and an investment tax credit (ITC) of 24% to incentivize the development of utility-scale wind energy projects (the ITC is offered to solar developers, too). The credits gradually wind down through 2019, but any project that begins construction before the end of that year can claim either credit.
Both credits expired at the end of 2014 but received a five-year retroactive extension in December 2015 after the House of Representatives agreed to a compromise spending bill that gave them new life.
"The extensions created a much better long-term financing marketplace," FBR Capital Markets analyst Carter Driscoll said. "You had a lot of people jump into the development ballgame and help put pressure on total system costs because they're demanding better economics [for utility-scale wind projects] and really getting to a point where you can see grid parity in sight."
Wind power briefly topped 50 percent penetration of the U.S. power grid for the first time last Sunday despite the fact that there are no utility-scale projects in the country's southeast.
Florida, in particular, looms as an intriguing possibility for wind developers. Its long coastline could be a friendly home to offshore projects, though that may not be an easy political sale to make.
"It's pretty hard to handicap people who love their beach and oceanfront views to think that you're somehow now going to put wind turbines throughout Florida," Driscoll said. "If you think you're going to put them in the central part of the state, maybe you've got a better shot than trying to locate them closer to the shores, which is really where you're going to get better wind speeds."
As coal-fired power makes less and less economic sense, a void on the power grid has emerged that wind and other renewables seem poised to fill.
"If you look at the overall power mix, coal still makes up 30% of generation," Morosi said. "There's still a lot of headroom for wind and solar to take share from coal, and I would also expect over time, natural gas would also keep taking share, but probably not at the same rate as wind and solar going forward."