Friday, June 06, 2008

The forecast calls for wind

There was plenty of energy -- human not wind -- coursing through the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) Windpower 2008 conference in Houston earlier this week. Coming fresh on the heels of the release of the U.S. Department of Energy's report on the feasibility of generating 20% of the nation's electricity from wind by 2030 ("20 by 30"), attendees were clearly buoyed and ready to accept the challenge.

The International Energy Agency issued a press release today stated that the world needs $45 trillion in additional investment to spur a clean technologies 'revolution' needed to cut annual emissions of gases blamed for global warming by half before 2050. The IEA definition of clean energy includes nuclear and carbon sequestration.

It is worth noting that the U.S. Department report states that the "20 by 30" wind energy goal can be achieved without any major technological breakthroughs. The leads to the obvious question: How much more could be generated with significant technological advances -- especially those designed to tap the nation's vast offshore wind resources? (GW)

Wind industry tooling up in the U.S.

By Christa Marshall
June 5, 2008

HOUSTON -- It could have been a scene from "The Jetsons," except that it was the annual conference of the wind industry.

Equipment resembling space-age aircraft, spinning turbines of various sizes, gigantic multicolored generators, limousine-length wind blades on trucks and airborne men in safety gear all filled a showroom stretching a quarter of a mile with more than 770 exhibit booths and 13,000 attendees.

Welcome to the wind-industrial complex, a structure that barely existed eight years ago in the United States. In 2001, there were only 1,000 attendees and 25 exhibitors at the American Wind Energy Association's (AWEA) annual gathering, well before wind capacity quadrupled between 2000 and 2006.

With a 45 percent domestic expansion in 2007 alone, the industry is sprouting new companies, opening foreign-owned factories in the United States and prompting businesses to retool existing products for wind. The colossal growth presents an opportunity and a challenge for the business, as it faces transmission bottlenecks, some environmental opponents and uncertainty about its federal support.

Much of the recent growth in the U.S. wind landscape comes from domestic supply chain companies, according to Britt Theismann, director of membership services for AWEA. In 2007, almost 50 percent of components for wind turbines were domestically produced, up from about 20 percent in 2005.

"We're working with the manufacturing base, predominantly in the Midwest," Theismann said. "We're saying, 'You're manufacturing for autos, so why not retool and manufacture for renewable energy?'"

As part of the effort, AWEA is partnering with nonprofits like Michigan-based NextEnergy to try to attract supply chain manufacturers. The outreach is crucial, since wind power is facing shortages of wind turbine components.

Struggling to fill the parts gap

Companies trying to fill the gap include S2 Yachts, a Michigan boat builder planning to make turbine parts. Then there's Dr. Shrink Inc., a 17-year-old shrinkwrap manufacturer, also based in Michigan, that previously assisted the marine industry but is finding its products are useful for protecting equipment.

"Manufacturers have the problem of things getting damaged while in transport or waiting on the wind farm," said Michael Stenberg, president and founder of Dr. Shrink Inc. "We cover and protect the blades until they're ready to rock and roll."

Other companies recently entering the wind industry:

  • Dayton Superior Corp., a first-time exhibitor at the expo. A manufacturer of concrete-related products for more than 100 years, the company moved into the wind business in the past year. Its products now include anchor bolts and wind-specific grout used at the base of turbines.
  • Rescue Technology, another first-time exhibitor. The Georgia manufacturer of rescue technical equipment is expanding into the wind business to help turbine maintenance workers safely ascend into the air. The industry has been increasingly focused on safety since a 2007 accident in Oregon that killed a worker inspecting a turbine.
  • Phoenix Services, a Texas provider of mechanical services during the erection and maintenance of wind turbines, with a particular interest in bolting services. Previously, the company provided assistance chiefly to the oil and gas industries.
  • Tensar International Corp., a company that manufacturers geogrids, mesh-like sheets placed on roadways to provide stability. Wind farm construction requires building roads that may cover rough terrain.

Foreign companies such as Denmark-based Vestas also are opening supply chain factories in cities such as Windsor, Colo., and West Branch, Iowa.

German-based turbine manufacturer Nordex announced in Houston that it plans to spend $100 million building a U.S. production facility for wind turbines and rotor blades at a potential Midwestern location. The company will be moving into a new office in Chicago in 2008.

But many executives are worried about the future, as Congress has yet to renew a federal tax credit expiring in December that many consider the source of wind power's recent surge. Already, some developers have delayed projects because of the instability.

"We're adding capacity in Europe" and looking at India, said Vic Abate, vice president for renewables at GE Energy. "We've had to diversify our technology regionally with this policy uncertainty."

Trying to bridge transmission voids

Another ongoing barrier is transmission, since wind farms often are located in underpopulated areas far from the highest electricity demand. To address the problem, state regulatory commissions increasingly are examining how to build new ways to move wind-generated power, many conference attendees said.

In March 2008, for example, California began work on the Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project, the first such project in the state designed specifically for wind (Greenwire, May 16).

Still, many people don't like the idea of transmission lines going through their property or pristine areas, representing a potential problem as the industry considers moving into more populated regions, said Ryan Wiser, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Transmission also involves multiple states and multiple utilities, a regulatory labyrinth exacerbated by the lengthy time required to build new grid lines, sand Randall Swisher, executive director of AWEA.

For that reason, the federal government should play a major role in helping states like North Dakota move potential wind generation to population centers like Minneapolis, said Andy Karsner, the Energy Department's assistant secretary for efficiency and renewable energy.

Siting, or finding the right jurisdiction in which to build a project, also is a challenge, many executives at the conference said, as communities sometimes complain about the aesthetics of a wind farm in their backyard.

Still, the federal government seems to be banking on the continued success of wind.

At the conference, the Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory annnounced several projects, including a new wind turbine blade test facility in Texas, to reach the goal of wind generating 20 percent of the nation's electricity by 2030.

"I'm optimistic that this industry will keep growing as long as the policy incentive is there," said Wiser. "We'll figure out how to deal with the transmission if everything else is in place."


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