North America goes large

UNITED STATES: Developers big and small are powering ahead with plans for megaprojects in the US and Canada, but can they overcome potential delays caused by transmission lags and unsigned PPAs?

Vestas V90 3MW turbines in California: giant turbines reduce operating costs
Vestas V90 3MW turbines in California: giant turbines reduce operating costs

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On the rebound from a lackluster 2010, the North American wind industry is aiming to build at least 25 megaprojects of 250MW or more by the end of next year. With several of these planned to be considerably larger than 250MW, an enormous total is in store, even if some of the projects ultimately drop off the list for 2012.

Despite a sour economy and low natural gas prices providing stiff competition, giant-sized US wind farms still make sense for many reasons. Ever-bigger turbines reduce costs by requiring fewer crane picks during installation, fewer machines to repair and fewer blades to buy. They also bring the possibility of lower overall power costs through better per-unit efficiency. Newer turbines tailored for low wind conditions are now making big projects possible in places with relatively poor wind speeds.

Further, federal tax credits are still lucrative and many states are ratcheting up requirements for renewable electricity standards, which mean a captive market of utilities for wind power producers. Permits, meanwhile, have usually been no harder – and sometimes easier – to gain for bigger projects.

"There's an old adage that it's just as easy to do a 200MW project as a 20MW project and I do think there's some truth to it," says Mike Garland, CEO of Pattern Energy, which maintains two megaprojects on the list. "But I think it's getting harder to do big projects in some areas because permitting is getting harder." Indeed, at least 27 potential megaprojects, including several by major developers, face delays beyond 2012, while others still lack vital transmission lines or power purchase agreements (PPAs). These are tricky problems.

"Everybody's business plan is they want to be successful," Garland says. "But if you look at the list of all these projects, you have to ask how many have PPAs."

Pattern is relying on timely completion of a 200- kilometre transmission project between the Mexican border and San Diego for its 299MW southern California project to make it online by 2012. The situation is emblematic of a broader problem for the megaprojects. Equipment, on the other hand, has become relatively easy to get. That 16 major projects list turbines suppliers as "to be determined" suggests developers are shopping for the best deals. Turbines already selected are from GE, Vestas, Nordex, Gamesa, Siemens and Nordex, while Repower is negotiating with at least one of the projects.

High expectations

Whatever the obstacles, several states are expecting multiple megaprojects. Kansas shows four between 300-600MW and Colorado three between 250-300MW. Wyoming has three, one of which could result in up to 3GW, in phases, between 2012 and 2015. One of Oregon's two projects is the 845MW Shepherd's Flat, which will debut the North American version of GE's 2.5MW turbines. Two megaprojects are planned for Canada.

As for individual developers, BP Wind Energy of Texas is planning four projects between 250-500MW, while Kansas's Tradewind Energy has four slated between 300-600MW. California-based Pattern, in addition to its 299MW home state project, is building a 270MW project in Ontario, and American Wind Energy Management is building two projects totaling more than 900MW in its home state of Illinois. No other developer plans more than one megaproject before the end of next year.

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