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First commercial plant almost up -- Clipper spinning soon

The much-anticipated debut of Clipper Windpower's 2.5 MW Liberty turbine took to the windy shores of Lake Erie last month, where UPC Wind Partners was erecting eight of the new machines to complete the Steel Winds wind farm. The 20 MW project in upstate New York signals Clipper's entry into a thirsty US turbine market. The fledgling California manufacturer is to produce 20 to 30 turbines a month at its plant in Iowa, pumping some 600-900 MW a year into an already booming North American sphere.

Not that Clipper, which has been heading towards this finish line since its beginnings in 2002, has been free of teething problems. Late last year, a gearbox hitch set back production schedules by several weeks. Then, in mid-January, the Steel Winds site saw winds of 30 metres a second just as the turbines were to be installed. "In this part of the country, this time of year is good for wind but not so good for putting turbines in the ground," says UPC's Scott Rowland. The turbines were expected to be operating this month.

The Liberty, which has yet to prove itself in commercial operation, is unusual in that it employs four generators instead of the usual one or two. And at 2.5 MW, it weighs no more than GE Energy's 1.5 MW turbine and uses the same-sized installation crane, says Clipper. The unusual features have not proved off-putting to Clipper's major customer, BP Alternative Energy, with which it signed a 4250 MW turbine contract last summer.

BP's close watch

"We've done extensive due diligence on the Clipper machine," says BP's Bob Lukefahr. "BP deals with a lot of new technology around the world and we're deploying a lot of machines other than Clipper. But we do think that the design of their turbine is very robust and we're working on a partnership to bring it to market. We absolutely have a lot of confidence and that comes from doing a lot of homework." Citing one practical advantage of the Liberty, he points out that replacement of bearings -- a frequently troubled part in wind turbines -- can be done without calling in a crane. "And access to cranes is a fairly critical part of this business."

Lukefahr acknowledges that BP will be keeping a close watch on Steel Winds, but counts Clipper's gearbox snafu among the kinds of things to be expected. "We've seen some hiccups in the manufacturing process," he says. "We're not too concerned about it. "

In addition to a 60 MW joint project this year with Clipper in central Texas, Lukefahr says BP plans a 20 MW repowering of an outdated wind plant in California. "We're going to replace 139 Windmatic turbines with four Clipper machines," he says. "The industry is in such a different place now and the scale of these machines and their lifespan is becoming much more competitive."

For its part, Massachusetts-based UPC has committed in recent months to nearly 200 Liberty turbines over several years for projects of its own. "In the course of this first project, Clipper has made the transition from a company with a prototype to a company that's in full production," says UPC's Rowland. "There were a few problems that got shaken out on the way to production. It's a turbine that we believe in and we believe it's about to become a major part of the turbine market. But we've been as eager as anyone to see them spin."

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