Alstom ups its game on wind

FRANCE/ SPAIN: Back in October 2007, Paris-based global transport and power giant Alstom finalised its EUR350 million acquisition of 26-year-old Ecotecnia, a Spanish turbine manufacturing pioneer.

Ecotecnia's founding members at the inauguration of their first turbine in 1984
Ecotecnia's founding members at the inauguration of their first turbine in 1984

At the time, Ecotecnia - a co-operative company built on the clean energy vision of late-1980s engineering graduates - had 1.6GW in operation, nearly all in Europe and mostly in Spain. Throughout a long honeymoon, both companies branded the union "the perfect marriage". Alstom used its global reach and financial muscle to back Ecotecnia's dream of expansion. For Alstom, wind was the only major power technology it did not yet offer its client base. It praised Ecotecnia's technology as the perfect fit.

Three years down the line, however, and now with 1,000 employees united under the name Alstom Wind - up from 850 people in 2008 - the venture has not yet made a sizeable global impact in terms of new installed capacity. Of nearly 600MW installed in 2008-2009, around 170MW was outside Spain but none outside Europe.

But the venture has gathered steam. Alfonso Faubel, Alstom Wind vice-president, now reaffirms the company's mission to become one of the top global wind turbine suppliers. This would be a massive leap, considering the company is currently grouped with those "others" that make up less than a combined 2% of global turbine supplies in the industry's rankings of manufacturer market shares.

Alstom Wind is now building its first two turbine manufacturing units abroad: one with an annual production capacity of 800MW in the US - the world's biggest cumulative wind market as of the end of 2009 - and the other, with a 300MW capacity, in the fast-emerging market of Brazil. At its Spanish base, the company is already turning out the 3MW ECO 100, one of the largest wind turbines currently in mass production specifically designed for onshore applications. Since last year, the company has installed 27 units of the ECO 100 in France.

More recently, it has clinched a 217MW order with Spanish utility Iberdrola, the world's top wind operator, for an extension to its British Whitelee development, where 322MW of Siemens technology already spins in the wind. That comes hot on the heels of contracts for 95MW and 100MW in Brazil and Morocco, respectively. Alstom Wind is also finalising the erection of ten 2MW ECO 80 machines in Wales, in the UK. Faubel expects to announce US contracts soon for its new facility going up in Texas, where the ECO 80 and ECO 100 machines will be produced.

Meanwhile, the company is developing a 6MW direct-drive turbine for offshore use. Both aspects - direct drive and offshore - mark firsts for Alstom. Faubel says the offshore machine will be available by 2014 and will be a key component in the company's bid for approaching the global market.

Torque talk

One of the main attractions of Ecotecnia technology is its pure torque concept, developed in the early days of Ecotecnia by Pep Pratts, who still leads the engineering team today. The concept is, essentially, a hollow cast casing to support the hub. The casing transmits all the uneven torsion across the rotor span to its points of support within the nacelle, meaning the axis turning within that casing is isolated from the non-rotational forces acting on the rotor. In other models, those forces are supported in part by a gearbox, an expensive component that incurs some of the highest maintenance costs across the sector. "With pure torque, the gearbox is no longer another consumable," says Faubel. He acknowledges that Alstom Wind gearboxes may sometimes need replacing, "as with any moving part, in any machine; but not systematically, and certainly not two or three or even more times, as happens in some cases".

Faubel admits Alstom Wind's progress was slower than initially expected. "First, we focused on integrating the two companies' activities and staff. That took a full year," he says. "Our main asset is the people here, and their know-how, and we were careful to make sure the integration was smooth." He points out how the push to get Ecotecnia's 3MW machine - already fully designed - into a working prototype was achieved in the summer of 2008, calling it a major unifier. Alstom's injection of capital to convert the Bunuel facility for turning out the first pre-series, now online in France, consolidated the bond. The ECO prefix to all Alstom Wind brands pays homage to the Ecotecnia pioneers.

Faubel also points to the Spanish market, which has slowed to a snail's pace since the government's capping of new wind capacity last year. That regulation - in a wind market where, Faubel says, Alstom traditionally has an 8-9% market share - also involved an eight-month moratorium on building new projects. Alstom Wind says it lost what would have been the first springboard for its 3MW ECO 100, relying on the French market to showcase it. That was done through a special pre-series agreement with EDP Renovaveis - the renewables division of Portugal's national utility - which acquired Alstom's 18MW Vieux de Moulins project in France, followed by neighbouring Alstom Wind projects totalling 63MW. All 81MW are now up and running. Alstom has achieved standard certification for the ECO 100, aimed at medium to strong wind speeds, and has since installed a 3MW prototype for low wind speeds - the ECO 110 - in Albacete, Spain.

Meanwhile, Faubel brushes off criticism by some industry experts that the commercial launch of the ECO 100 turbine platform has been slow. He cites the recent contract with Iberdrola for that machine and adds: "Wind is an extension of Alstom Power's huge global business, broadening the range of solutions offered to our extensive global client base." A big chunk of that base is made up of large utilities, such as Iberdrola, to whom Alstom already offers a range of technologies. Among those supplied to the industry are combined-cycle gas, coal, oil, hydro and the conventional steam-cycle and turbine elements of nuclear generation.

According to Alstom, it is the only group offering all major power generation technologies. It claims to be the world's third-largest group in installed generation capacity including all technologies, now supplying 25% of the global total. Alstom also says it holds the top spot for hydroelectric power generation.

The Alstom group recorded sales of EUR19.7 billion in the financial year leading up to March 31, 2010. Alstom Power - which includes Alstom Wind - brought in 51% of the total. Alstom Power is present in 70 countries and employs more than 52,000 people.

Regions of influence

"Brazil is a beautiful example of our approach," says Faubel. "We have been present there for more than 55 years and we are number one in hydro power. That has enabled a quick entry for our wind business there." Alstom Wind is making openings where its traditional power sector clout coincides with strong or emerging wind markets. That is why Europe, the US and China are firmly in the company's sights.

In Brazil, Faubel expects Alstom Wind's new EUR20 million facility, now going up in Bahia, to be working on its first commercial order in 2011. The factory will turn out ECO 80 machines, which include 1.65MW and 2MW ratings. "That's market driven," says Faubel. The Brazilian market is just taking off and road vehicles and cranes for handling bigger machines are, as yet, scarce.

The company is already working on a EUR100 million, 95MW turbine order for Brazil at its existing Bunuel factory in the northern Spanish region of Navarre. The customer is local engineering group Engevix, a traditional Alstom hydro client for the past 30 years. Alstom Wind will provide 57 of its 1.67MW ECO 86 turbines for the Brotas wind complex. Commissioning is planned for July 2011. Until contracts are signed, Faubel prefers not to discuss other expected orders or how much capacity, if any, Alstom Wind is likely to provide in Brazil following its recent round of wind development auctions.

Made in the USA

Similarly, Faubel declines to offer specifics on turbine negotiations in the US, citing confidentiality. Still, he is confident that the first commercial order for his company's 800MW turbine factory currently being built in Amarillo, Texas, will be under way in 2011. As well as producing turbines for Alstom Wind's ECO 80 platform, the nearly 11,000-square-metre Amarillo facility will also produce ECO 100 machines. At full pelt, the plant will employ 275 people. Towers and blades will be procured separately.

Like many other clean technology manufacturers in the US, Alstom will benefit from tax credits included in a large federal economic stimulus package passed last year. Alstom Wind has secured $2.7 million through the programme, which represents roughly 30% of the facility's capital cost.

"Amarillo is in the Panhandle of the Texan wind corridor and is the optimum location for a facility," says Faubel. The US has long since been a key target market for Alstom Wind, which has operated from its offices in Richmond, West Virginia, for the past two years. Jordi Puigcorbe, vice-president of marketing at the company's technology centre in Barcelona, Spain, says the firm's commitment to the US market is also underlined by its collaboration agreement with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, where Alstom will install an ECO 100 turbine for research and certifying of the Pure Torque concept. In co-operation with the Technical University of Texas, Alstom Wind has founded the National Institute of Renewable Energies to undertake further research and development projects in turbine design.

Asian dragons

Regarding other key geographical market targets, Faubel is less candid. He says Alstom Wind is studying developments in India very carefully. Alexis de Beaumont, vice-president of production management at Alstom Wind, points to a relatively stable market of 1.5-1.8GW over recent years. Any decision on future moves, however, depends on the final version of new regulations currently being drafted. Alstom Power already employs 4,000 people in India and could pounce if and when conditions are ripe, says Faubel.

That goes for any market where Alstom Power is already present. "We are studying opportunities wherever they arise but we are also wary of spreading ourselves too thinly," says Faubel.

Faubel says his company is making plans for the massive Chinese wind market, but declines to reveal details. He does admit, though, that Alstom Wind has been operating from offices in Beijing for more than a year and has already developed local component and material supply chains.

"As with Brazil and North America, China is anything but a new market for Alstom Power, which has been there for 30 years," says Faubel. He claims Alstom Power has around 6,000 Chinese employees on its payroll and is behind 20-25% of installed power generating capacity. Accordingly, he reckons the group cannot really be considered foreign. So, unlike other non-Chinese wind corporations, Alstom would not be so dependent on bringing large-scale local stakeholders into any future turbine manufacturing concern. Having said that, Faubel insists China is just one possible site for an Asian-Pacific industrial hub.

Offshore plunge

Industry insiders working close to Alstom Wind suggest the company is particularly interested in China's up-and-coming offshore market. While Faubel admits a possible Chinese push offshore to be of interest, he identifies the global offshore wind market in general as a sector where the company hopes to establish leadership.

He declines to offer financial specifics, but says Alstom Wind is dedicating huge efforts and resources to developing a 6MW machine. The UK's Round 3 offshore programme, aimed at bringing installed wind capacity at sea to more than 30GW by 2020, is Alstom Wind's prime driver. "All the turbines that will supply Round 3 have yet to appear on a commercial scale," says Faubel. "Ours will be ready by 2014, in time to compete with the rest. I am certain of that." The company aims to produce a pilot machine by the end of 2011, followed by a prototype in 2012.

To that end, a large number of Alstom Wind's 170 technical and engineering staff at its Barcelona technology centre are working on the new model design. Puigcorbe, an Ecotecnia veteran leading part of the project, says some of the know-how comes from the Windlider programme it carried out with fellow turbine maker Gamesa from 2005 to 2010 to develop design software for machines up to 10MW. "But that is only a part of it," he says. The rest is organic and also draws on Alstom's experience in large turbines and large generators of hundreds of megawatts of capacity.

"Offshore is firmly on the table in Europe and around the world as a major power contributor," says Faubel. "There are going to be a limited number of players capable of addressing the technical challenges and the liability side of the business," he adds. "That requires the type of balance sheet that Alstom has and the know-how to provide solutions in very demanding environments." The implication is that the very challenges that make wind an increasingly risky, high-tech business, particularly offshore, are an advantage to Alstom. Its credibility in the wind sector rests on proving it can turn those words into world-class delivery.

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