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United States

Alstom's variability pledge eases harmony fears

US: Nuclear giant Alstom's confirmation that it will build a wind turbine assembly facility in Texas has led to questions about how it plans to increase generation of its traditional rival power source.

Alstom will produce nacelles for its 3MW turbine at its Texas factory
Alstom will produce nacelles for its 3MW turbine at its Texas factory

The multinational French conglomerate is best known for its passenger trains and nuclear power plants. It entered the global wind market in 2007 with its acquisition of Spain-based Ecotecnia, a turbine manufacturer with long history in the European market and over 2.2GW currently in operation.

The company announced that it is to build a 10,683-square-metre assembly facility at the US wind industry's annual wind conference held last month in Dallas, Texas. At full capacity, the factory in Amarillo will produce 800MW of nacelles per year and support around 275 full-time jobs. The move is designed to help boost sales of its 1.67MW and 3MW turbines to the US market.

Towers and blades will be sourced separately in arrangements that have either not been finalised or not yet disclosed. Like many other clean-technology manufacturers, Alstom will benefit from tax credits included in a large federal economic stimulus package passed last year. The company is pre-approved for a $2,725,800 tax credit - roughly 30% of the facility's capital cost - provided the facility comes online by 2014.

But Alstom's big push into the US market begs a question as to how the company intends to ramp up generation of both wind and nuclear power, two technologies that have not always played very nicely together.

Tim Brown, director of communications for Alstom in the US, says the company wants to be at the forefront of balancing various energy generation resources. In addition to wind, Alstom aims to be a top provider of hydropower generation and to lead a nuclear renaissance in the US.

Differing technologies

However, European experience has so far shown that nuclear power and wind power tend not to be complementary technologies. Nuclear power plants typically run constantly at their maximum available output both because they are designed that way and in order to offset their high upfront capital costs. The nuclear lobby in Europe has gone to lengths to question wind power's role in combating global warming and suggested that a major nuclear build-out is the only solution (Windpower Monthly, June 2005).

Brown acknowledges that the question of how nuclear and wind plants will work together is a fair one. But, he argues, by allowing nuclear to vary its output, the two power sources can work better together. "The way to do that," Brown says, "is to have nuclear plants that have the capacity to ramp down just a bit so that it's not all-or-nothing."

He describes new proprietary nuclear generation technology that Alstom is perfecting, which will allow a nuclear plant to easily ramp down from 100% to 98% capacity, freeing up grid space when the wind is blowing.

"We think that if you can get the nuclear plants at the right point, they can operate a little bit less, which can then accommodate the wind when it's available," says Brown. "When it's not available, you can ramp the nuclear plant back up to 100%. It's the same with coal plants. Our piece of the smart grid, and our energy management business, will help us do that."

Negative pricing

Brown says that if wind power is not accommodated by nuclear plants in this way, it might cost them: "Actually, there are some grids where you face negative pricing if you run your coal or nuclear plant when all the wind comes online."

Negative pricing means that in an electricity market, or sub-zone of a market, where power generation is higher than demand, market prices that are paid to generators can slide from normal into negative figures, which means that generators are actually paying to put their power on the grid. This is essentially a penalty for generating too much power.

"By ramping down you can get that sweet spot where you're getting paid the maximum amount and you're not getting a penalty for not accommodating wind or solar," says Brown.

For example, in Texas low and negative prices are often the result of wide swings in supply and demand of power, often exacerbated by transmission constraints. "Texas is a good example," says Brown. "We've seen it more with coal than nuclear plants, but the principle is the same. Baseload plants that are operating face negative prices because the wind is blowing. So if you balance those out with smart grid you get the best of both technologies."

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