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United States

Strategic shift helps GE Energy buck the downturn with $1 billion deal

US: Christmas came early in December for GE Energy as it landed a $1.4 billion contract to kick off sales of its new 2.5MW turbine in the US market. All 845MW are destined for the Shepherds Flat wind project in Oregon developed by Caithness Energy. GE's first post-credit-crunch wind turbine sale reflects subtle shifts and broadening of GE's strategy in the wind business.

GE's 2.5MW turbine is ideal for projects with land constraints
GE's 2.5MW turbine is ideal for projects with land constraints

GE is offering the 2.5MW unit to the US to cater for projects and regions of the country with land constraints where getting out more kilowatts per turbine is an important consideration. GE first introduced its 2.5MW unit to Europe precisely because the continent's land constraints make demand for multi-megawatt machines greater.

Victor Abate, who heads up GE Energy's wind division, says that while the US still has much more wide open space in good wind regimes than Europe, the time has come for GE to provide a similar offering to the US market.

"The 2.5 makes sense for certain parts of the country where there are mountainous ridgelines and often specific zoning requirements," says Abate. Renewable energy mandate laws are driving a market for wind in these and other regions but land constraints and higher population density dictate that more megawatts per turbine allow for a bigger project. For example, if a developer receives permission to construct only three turbines on a given ridgeline, using 2.5MW turbines will result in a 7.5MW farm. "If I do it with the 1.5 units, it's only a 4.5MW wind farm," says Abate.

Although there is a minor drawback that, as Abate says, the 2.5MW unit is not as efficient as the 1.5MW unit, it still makes economic sense to install the larger unit where space is scarce, as total output is greater.

The opposite is true for the wind farms in flat rural west Texas and other parts of the Midwest with few land constraints. A developer with a 100MW grid connection agreement will opt for the cheapest and widest swept area to reach 100MW. In those cases, says Abate, GE's 1.5MW unit will continue to be the best choice as the company's most efficient machine.

"We position that as the world leading capacity factor machine, the most efficient way to capture wind where land is not an issue, and in the US that's pretty much been the build plan over the last four or five years.

If you look where most development has gone, it's pretty much straight up the centre of the country," says Abate. But the next build phase, he says, will see fewer areas where land is not an issue.

GE has also changed its approach to operations and maintenance (O&M). All 338 turbines for Shepherds Flat include a rarely seen 10-year O&M coverage contract. During the boom days of a turbine seller's market, O&M services from a turbine vendor tended to run for short durations, often not more than two or four years. Terms are improving lately as vendors try to court fewer buyers in a credit-constrained market.

But Abate says that rather than being down solely to a shift in the supply and demand cycle, this is also the result of a refocusing on which experts are good at what task. Developers are the professionals at finding proven strong wind sites and securing land and permits for construction; manufacturers like GE are best positioned to operate and monitor today's increasingly complex turbines, he says.

"A project like this is massive, you've got to have some skills and there's a lot of synergies that can be gained if you have an expert do that," says Abate. All the units will be fitted with condition monitoring systems to assess critical components and turbine operation in real time from GE's centralised wind turbine operations centre in Schenectady, New York, 4,450 kilometres away. GE will see how well they are running and how components are holding up, and can monitor trends and anomalies over the fleet.

"It gets back to scale and size," says Abate. "With a small wind farm it's tough to really draw any conclusions, but when you have 338 turbines in one wind farm, I can do a lot of sophisticated analysis to optimise how the wind park runs and I can do that in a centralised way with our engineering team." GE's power and water division has 7000 engineers with around 1000 focused on wind power.

GE is shifting some existing production of 1.5MW units away from its facility in Pensacola, Florida, to build the 2.5MW. But Abate does not expect 1.5MW production to taper off, because "we have customers that I think forever are going to stay with that platform".

Most of all, says Abate, the deal bodes well at a time when credit and cash are scarce and new turbine sale deals are not as common now: "From our perspective, this is a really big deal. It's the launch of the 2.5MW turbine into the US in a pretty dramatic way, and if you look at some of the challenges in this industry, an order of this size is good for us."

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