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Analysis - testing dilemma puts US blade designer on the market

UNITED STATES: In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama challenged the US wind industry to come up with its own "Sputnik moment" and take a lead in renewables technology. Two years on, one of the companies that may have produced such a product could fall into foreign hands.

ModWind's patented technology behind its segmented 49-metre blade is a key asset
ModWind's patented technology behind its segmented 49-metre blade is a key asset

California-based Modular Wind Energy (ModWind) was founded in 2008 and backed by venture capitalist firms. It developed a segmented rotor-blade design of 45 metres that enabled production and transportation in individual 15-metre sections. In theory at least, with the trend towards ever larger blades, this should be a popular product. The only problem is, despite being certified by GL, it is untested on a turbine.

What turbine it is eventually fitted to is a moot point as the company is being sold by its venture capitalist owners Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Battery Ventures and General Catalyst. Speaking to Windpower Monthly, ModWind chief executive Gregor Gnaedig said it would conclude a deal in the next three months. He did not comment on current staffing levels, but according to insiders only a skeleton staff remain.

But the key ModWind asset is undoubtedly the intellectual property for a blade that is both light and can be transported in parts. The sections are put together using a patented truss system that avoids the weight penalty incurred by using bolts. ModWind claims the benefits of its blade include greater stiffness and strength, and up to 20% lighter design compared with conventional blades of similar length and structural strength.

Design is one thing, but the most successful wind technology has been evolved slowly over time. The development of a good service record is an approach that manufacturers and, more importantly, project finance require. Although the ModWind blade was certified for testing last year, the problem has been finding someone to test it on a turbine.

According to insiders close to the company, Mitsubishi and Gamesa came close to signing a test deal. At one point, the former was a likely candidate with the MHI 2.4MW turbine. But this was killed off by the Japanese company's battle with GE over patent infringements on the 2.4. The most likely candidate was Repower, however this was scuppered by the recent departure of CTO Matthias Schubert. Repower was unable to comment.

One former ModWind employee said: "There was just one egg in the basket [Repower], so we were dependent on their acceptance. Beyond their Canada Hills project they had little US capacity, and when Schubert left, we had a problem because he was our sponsor. Repower was the target for the prototype and that was what the mould was based on."

It is believed four wind power OEMs are in talks about a purchase, with Danish blade manufacturer LM Wind Power one the front runners. Asked about its position on ModWind, LM said it refused to comment "on market speculation". Likewise, Gnaedig was unable to comment on whether ModWind would exist in its present form once the sale had gone through, or the job cuts that had occurred.

He added: "ModWind has entered negotiations with a large corporation about an acquisition and the current investors are interested in pursuing this opportunity. ModWind has reached out to the market and is now actively soliciting competitive quotes from potential buyers."

In terms of the wind industry, it is undoubtedly companies such as ModWind that will have to fulfil Obama's space age aspirations. But in terms of the Apollo programme, it is doubtful the US's victory in the space race would have been so sweet had the lunar module been designed in Houston but produced in Denmark.

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