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Wind unit absorbed in energy division -- Top wind bosses at GE depart

Two top bosses from GE Energy's wind power unit have quietly left the company. No official explanation is being given for the departure of Steve Zwolinksi, head of General Electric's wind operations, and vice-president Herbert Peels, responsible for operations in Europe. Zwolinski was made head of the wind unit when GE bought Enron Wind from the bankrupt Enron Corp in 2001. He was previously general manager of GE Global Hydro and leaves GE after more than 20 years in its employ. Peels headed GE's wind turbine facility in Germany, both before and after its purchase from Enron.

In the United States, spokesperson for the wind unit, Mary McCann, denies any problems with delivery schedules for GE turbines in America and says the company is on track with all its projects. Zwolinski is leaving so he can pursue other interests outside the world's largest company, she says. Following the extension of wind power's federal production tax credit in September, GE turbine sales in the US surged by an astounding $1.3 billion, or 1500 MW, all to be delivered in late 2004 and 2005, says McCann. "GE Energy's wind business has accepted only those orders and commitments that we know we will be able to complete on schedule."

In Germany, spokesperson Andreas Wagner says the changes at the top of the wind unit are part of a new branding strategy being implemented by the entire GE group, aimed at presenting fewer business divisions to the public. The wind unit is being fully absorbed into GE Energy, headquartered on the US east coast, and will lose its separate identity. In America, sales staff are being relocated from Tehachapi, California, to Schenectedy, New York.

GE's commitment to wind remains unchanged, says the company's Pete Duprey. "The wind business is part of GE Energy and has been from the start," he continues. "The change that is being made is to integrate wind, hydro and thermal into one unit called Power Generation. We found that many of the customers were the same across each of the segments and wanted one customer touch point. The change also recognises that wind needs to be thought of as a power generation technology and not just an environmentally friendly solution." The reorganisation will mark the wind unit more of a power systems business so it can take better advantage of the synergies between GE energy divisions, he adds.

In Germany

No replacements have been announced for either Zwolinski or Peels, although Rainer Bröring has been made head of GE's wind operations in Salzbergen, Germany. GE's share of the German market -- the largest in the world alongside Spain -- fell last year to just 7.7% from 11.2% in 2003, putting it behind Enercon, Vestas and Repower. Although the German market is shrinking, 2000 MW of wind plant were installed last year.

As a country of low winds, larger turbines are preferred in Germany. Wagner admits that GE is late with its next generation technology to replace GE's 1.5 MW workhorse, the 2.X series, ranging in size from 2.3 MW to 2.75 MW. Prototypes are currently running at a wind turbine test centre in the Netherlands. Moreover, the owners of German wind turbines graded GE in seventh place out of eight manufacturers in a survey of turbine service quality carried out by German wind association Bundesverband Windenergie.

Wagner says that while GE's sales were down in Germany, the company is satisfied with its performance in other European markets, particularly Spain, France, Italy, Austria and Britain. Two-thirds of wind turbines made at Salzbergen are exported, says Wagner.

The Salzbergen works produces GE's 1.5 MW turbine (also made in the United States and Spain) and the 2.X turbine series, yet to be commercialised. Eight GE 3.6 MW turbines have also been built at Salzbergen, seven of which make up the Arklow Banks offshore plant in the Irish Sea. GE is due to complete a second offshore wind station, a project it currently owns, off the English east coast next year. Wagner says the machine will be tested for two to three years.

American customers

Most demand for GE turbines, however, is this year shifting from Europe to the US. Among the projects using GE turbines are those by the two largest US developers, FPL Energy and PPM Energy. The developers say they will complete previously announced projects this year more or less on schedule, but both will soon announce new projects that they also plan for completion this year. Turbine availability could be an issue, they say.

"We expect to announce new projects and turbine availability will be a determiner on which manufacturer would supply the turbines," says PPM's Jan Johnson. PPM has 325 MW of projects under construction, all using GE 1.5 MW turbines.

FPL also says its projects under construction using GE turbines are on schedule. Both the 106.5 MW Weatherford project in Oklahoma and the 114 MW Callahan Divide project in Texas will be completed by the second quarter of 2005, says FPL's Steve Stengel. But FPL plans to build an additional 250 MW to 700 MW this year. Stengel declines to say which company will provide the wind turbines. "As we get further into the year, we'll have a better idea of how turbine availability could affect that number," he says.

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