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A global company with a global cause -- Reorganisation at GE strengthens wind commitment

Strategic business considerations, not technical difficulties, lie behind GE Energy's decision to delay the release of its long-awaited 2X series of wind turbines, assure both the company's vice president for power generation, Mark Little, and the general manager of the wind energy unit, Robert Gleitz. Incorporation of the wind unit into the mainstream of GE's power generation business towards the end of last year involved a rethink of product strategy, says Little. "The aim is to put the business on a strong platform before we accelerate. There are no technical issues," he says.

GE's wind unit is now part of a new GE Energy division: wind, hydro and energy products. The reorganisation was undertaken with the aim of strengthening wind power's base within GE by giving it access to the full spectrum of GE's capabilities. Wind is now part of a GE matrix, explains Gleitz, with direct access to people with a huge variety of specialist skills within power generation.

Typical of how the new set up will work is the multi-product sales side of the business: wind turbines will be sold by the same people selling other GE power products. If a sales person can see a wind plant would fit into the portfolio of a gas plant customer, that is what will be suggested, says Gleitz.

The reorganisation is still in a transition period, he stresses, which accounts for the delay in releasing the 2 MW turbine series. The market has long been demanding turbines larger than GE's 1.5 MW workhorse, the only turbine commercially available from the company since it entered the wind business in 2002.

Delivery log jam

GE's size (it is the world's largest company) has by no means protected it from the pain of doing business in a wind market that suffers from chronic instability. The company has been badly caught out by the lapse and subsequent revival of the United States market, which is dependent on when and if Congress renews wind's federal production tax credit each time it lapses -- these days an annual cliff-hanger.

Last year GE had promised to deliver turbines on a number of US contracts. But when the PTC lapsed the orders were placed on hold, to suddenly become active all at once when the tax credit was renewed. The roller coaster ride has clearly been a logistical nightmare at GE. "We are taking stuff from Europe into the US market and leaving our European customers short -- and this not what we want to be doing," says Little. GE has orders for 2400 MW of wind turbines this year, 1650 MW of them from customers in the US.

The bottleneck has not been within GE but in the component supply chain, adds Gleitz. "We would be able to produce more turbines if we could get the components," he says. It is a familiar refrain among wind turbine manufacturers this year. Will GE be making a serious effort to source components within the company to free up the bottleneck? "We are strategically thinking on components," says Gleitz, who points out that GE has already developed its own wind turbine control technology.

Blade supply is a particular issue. GE gets its blades from Denmark's LM Glasfiber, which co-operates closely with its number one customer. GE is looking specifically at blade design, says Gleitz. "We have a team that is working on the shape of the blades and to design the complete blade."

A prototype for the 2 MW-plus 2X series has been running at a turbine test centre in the Netherlands since May last year (Windpower Monthly, June, 2004). Testing has gone well, says Gleitz. Among other things GE is looking closely at how to solve drive train failure. Gearbox development has notoriously failed to keep pace with the rapid escalation of wind turbine size and drive train failure has become endemic in the industry. "We are looking to other solutions -- different geometry. That is something that is being included in our new series," says Gleitz.

GE's one basic turbine model, the 1.5 MW machine, was born out of the enforced marriage of Zond technology from America with the successful Tacke line of wind turbines from Germany when both companies were bought by Enron to form its wind division. GE scooped up Enron Wind after the mother company's plunge into disgrace and bankruptcy, but declined to proceed with the Enron turbines from the American side of the business, which were suffering in the field (Windpower Monthly, July 2002).

At the time, wind industry expectations were that GE, with its vast reservoirs of power engineering expertise to draw on, was set to make a quantum leap in wind power technology. The opposite occurred. In the three years since its purchase of Enron, GE has focused on bettering the standard 1.5 MW model through forging close contacts with key component suppliers, boosting production quality to reduce turbine failures, and improving the turbine's specifications. Among other things, the company focused on developing the machine's grid-fault ride through capability to meet the demands of emerging new grid codes for connecting wind plant around the world.

View from the top

Old hands in the power generation industry, Little and Gleitz are openly enthusiastic about their involvement in wind energy. At the recent American Wind Energy Association annual conference in Denver, Little left no doubt that GE intends to play a major role in helping to forge a global wind power market. "GE will provide technology and support for sensible public policy," he said.

Little pointed out that power industry predictions of ten years ago for falling coal, gas and oil prices were all wrong. "Wind is a practical solution today," he told the assembled American press. Little also insisted that President George Bush's energy plan was not just about increasing fossil fuel and nuclear supplies. He pointed out that 50% of the Bush administration's recommendations are connected with energy conservation and renewables.

Gleitz echoes Little's views. "We have a global mission to bring this industry to a new level," he says. "What we believe is that there is no one single solution and no one type of energy. You have to balance the portfolio so it takes account of the fact that fossil fuels are finite. We need to find some other solution. Wind is the most credible solution. GE will support and supply this balance. We believe that wind should have a greater role." Wind, adds Gleitz, "has to be replacing old coal."

Fresh air

As an experienced power industry professional, Gleitz believes the biggest perception hurdle wind has to get over is that it is too small to make any notable contribution to clean power supply. "People focus on the nominal output of one turbine. What they need to look at is the wind plant as a whole," he says.

Gleitz was absorbed into the GE empire in 1999 when the company took over French power equipment supplier Alstom. Prior to being posted to the wind unit, he was general manager of energy products at GE, which he describes as gas turbines and applications power plant, particularly the development of combined cycle gas turbines of 40-250 MW. Moving into the wind business is a "breath of fresh air," he says. "As you come into wind you see a totally different behaviour. Guys are really committing themselves. That is very refreshing. It's like a totally different industry." People working in wind are far less jaded, he insists. "The people in it look younger. They are more open. They are looking to the outside."

GE expects its wind energy business to grow to more than $2 billion this year, from revenues of $500 million in its first year of operation in 2002.

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