Winds of change? An overview of the global wind power industry

Winds of change? An overview of the global wind power industry

Electricity Generation

In terms of both installed electricity generating capacity from wind, and the capacity added in 2021, China is dominant. The People’s Republic installed as much generating capacity in 2021 as the rest of the world combined, with the United States accounting for about 15%. With 328 GW, China also accounts for fully 40% of global installed generating capacity, almost twice as much as the EU on 22%, and more than twice as much as the US with 16%.

However, globally, wind power generation is very diverse. Over 35 countries now have gigawatt-scale production capacity, up from just 7 in 2004. Twelve countries can generate in excess of 10 GW, up from just one (Germany) in 2004, and for the past few years, both the US and China have had the capacity to generate more than 100 GW from wind. China naturally hosts the world’s largest wind farm, the Gansu farm in western Gansu province, with an installed capacity of almost 10GW, and a target of 20GW. It is important to note that installed capacity (or ‘nameplate capacity’) is not the same as energy generated – the wind does not always blow, and grid connectivity, maintenance requirements and other issues may reduce the total electricity generated by turbines. However, as of 2021, ten countries generate more than 30 TWh of wind power.

The list of countries using wind power as a proportion of total electricity consumption, is unsurprisingly dominated by wealthy European countries with long coastlines, such as Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Ireland, Norway, the UK, Portugal, Spain, Italy and France, with Australia, Canada, the US and China following on. The preponderance of these countries abutting the North Sea, which combines strong winds from the North Atlantic and the Arctic with relatively shallow water, makes it an exceptionally suitable area for offshore wind generation. The largest world’s offshore wind farm  is the UK’s Hornsea farm in the North Sea, with nameplate capacity of 1.2GW. In several countries including Sweden, Germany, the UK and Spain, wind power accounted for more than one-fifth of total electricity consumption in 2021.



When compared to other major elements of the green energy industry, such as batteries and solar photovoltaics, wind turbines have a large advantage in the era of strained supply chains and geopolitical competition – the raw materials for their construction are not rare or stranded in remote corners of the world. Blades are usually made with glass fibre or carbon fibre, and other elements of the turbine are predominantly steel and copper. Some designs also use aluminium, and turbines are usually installed with steel-reinforced concrete. There are small amounts of fluorspar, magnesium, silver, indium and rare earth minerals. Most major industrial powers could maintain an effective domestic wind turbine industry if desired. That said, the advanced engineering techniques required to produce the most advanced turbines, with lighter, more durable blades, using nano-engineered composites and polymers, are more challenging.

As a result, the global wind turbine industry is diverse. However, many of the top 30 companies in the wind turbine manufacturing industry are based in China and Northern Europe – specifically Denmark and Germany. Spain, Korea, the US and India also feature heavily. As might be expected, wind turbine construction is often handled by heavy engineering firms that produce related products, such as gas turbine engines – this is the case for companies from General Electric Renewable Energy in the US, China Haizhuang, part of Chinese shipbuilder CSIC, and Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy, part of the German engineering conglomerate.

Wind turbine technology continues to advance rapidly. Although some might imagine that one day, every house will be built with a small wind turbine on the roof, in fact the trend has been the opposite, with turbines becoming larger and more powerful, resulting in greater generating capacity on a smaller footprint. This has occurred in part because larger turbines are more efficient, with average output that is a larger share of nameplate capacity, partly because energy generated grows exponentially with linear increases in turbine diameter, and partly because they can tap into more reliable higher-level air currents. The largest individual turbines currently commercially deployed have a capacity of 11 GW, and GE has an even larger 14 GW Haliade-X prototype that has already received customer orders.

It is uncontroversial to say that the outlook for the global wind turbine industry is very bright. Moreover, since wind potential is more evenly distributed around the world than solar, and, since the plan for global decarbonisation is based around electrification, the degree to which countries are able to rapidly green their electricity supply with wind will be perhaps the biggest single determinant of whether the world meets the 1.5°C Paris climate goal.