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United States

Big projects reflect growing confidence -- Most developments now in the plus 100 MW range

If bigger is better, then America's wind power is about to get a lot better in coming months. From New York to California and Minnesota to Texas, wind farms ranging in size between 100-210 MW are popping up at a steady clip. Fifteen projects in that size range are either recently completed or under construction and expected to be operating by the end of this year or early next.

Combined, big projects represent 2224 MW of new capacity going up this year, nearly 2000 MW of which will be supplied by two manufacturers. GE Energy is slated to supply 1335 MW of the machinery, with Vestas adding another 619 MW. Add to that a number of projects below the 100 MW mark and the US market is well on track to thrash its previous annual record of wind development -- 1695 MW set in 2001.

"It certainly seems to be a trend and reflects confidence among the financial community, which is a fairly recent phenomenon," says Tom Gray of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), with reference to the sheer size of many of this year's US projects. "Machines are increasing in size and bigger projects can provide more power."

And that, according to PPM Energy's Jan Johnson, means the bigger power market players are increasingly eager to pick up the wind ball. "Companies like Shell, Goldman-Sachs and GE come to the table with financial might and manufacturing expertise," says Johnson. "A lot of these players have been involved for a long time and are used to dealing with all the issues involved in keeping the lights on."

Keeping the ball rolling is the recent extension of wind's federal production tax credit (PTC) through 2007. "In the past, the tax credit was allowed to expire," says Gray. "But as time goes by and this tax credit remains in place, there'll be growing confidence among investors." The increasing price of fossil fuel generation and a growing general interest in renewable energy options among retail customers is also pushing the market along.

"We're putting up towers and flying the blades," says Johnson. "A lot of our projects are well under way." PPM is finishing up projects of 198 MW in New York, 150 MW in Kansas and California, and 100.5 MW in Minnesota. With 574 MW lined up for completion in 2005, PPM is set to push FPL Energy, the leading owner of wind power generation in the US, into second place for this year.

FPL has a number of large-scale projects, including wind farms of 210 MW and 114 MW in Texas, and a 147 MW two-phase facility in Oklahoma with 106.5 MW already completed. "At the end of the day our competitor is other forms of power generation, and once you get in the neighbourhood of 100 MW economies of scale kick in," says the company's Steve Stengel.

Despite the clear growth in wind plant construction, roadblocks remain. Lack of adequate transmission capacity and market rules that often discriminate against wind mean it is not always easy to get it to the customer. "The same challenges that the industry has had historically still remain," says Stengel. "Every project has a certain amount of permitting issues. Customers have other options and our goal is to price our product competitively. That's the constant challenge we face."

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