End of the road for 5GW mega project

UNITED STATES: Ambitious plans by Clipper Windpower and oil giant BP to build one of the world's biggest onshore wind projects - the 5GW Titan project in South Dakota - appear to have reached the end of the line.

In 2008, California-based Clipper, which has kept Titan on its drawing board since the early 2000s, partnered with BP Wind Energy to develop it as the world's largest wind farm. A 25MW pilot project was completed in December 2009 and the rest was meant to be built in phases over the following decade and beyond. But nothing has happened on the project since the initial pilot.

Meanwhile, Clipper was acquired by United Technologies Corporation in late 2010 and has been put up for sale. More importantly, there are serious questions over whether the project was ever viable.

Not enough demand

"I can't comment for Clipper or BP, but I just haven't heard from them in a while," said Brian Rounds, an analyst at the South Dakota Public Service Commission. "The issue is that they were talking about 5.05GW - and peak in South Dakota is probably around 3GW total."

In other words, Titan would require long-distance transmission lines to bring power from central South Dakota to Chicago or another major population centre - and no such plans are in the works. Upcoming South Dakota transmission build-outs are concentrated near Buffalo Ridge, a flourishing wind-power region that straddles the Minnesota border to the east.

"There's quite a bit of Buffalo Ridge resource that's probably going to have transmission built over the next three to five years," Rounds said. "I would guess all of that will get developed before a project like Titan."

The 25MW pilot phase, which is 100% owned and operated by BP, comprises ten Clipper 2.5MW turbines and sells power to nearby NorthWestern Energy under a long-term power-purchase agreement. "But NorthWestern is about a 300MW utility," Rounds said. "So they're probably not looking for a lot more wind than that." Clipper and BP did not respond to requests for comment.

Now well into its second decade, Clipper has long been known both for innovation and bad luck. Its unique turbine harnesses four generators that can be serviced with an onboard jib crane. But the company suffered from gearbox and blade problems in its early years - resulting in a tarnished reputation and limited market share.