Confidence grows for US wind future

LEADER: Chris Brown, president of Vestas Americas, gave short shrift to the argument that the phasing-out of the US's production tax credit (PTC) would mean technological development playing second fiddle to getting steel into the ground over the next few years.

"Hell no," he told our US correspondent. "You have to chew gum and walk at the same time. We either innovate, or we die."

As if on cue, Vestas unveiled one of the most radical new wind turbine designs from a major manufacturer we have seen in many years (page 41).

The four-rotor 900kW prototype, installed at a test site in Denmark, may not herald a decisive leap forward in wind power technology — it is far too early to say — but at the very least it shows the industry is thinking beyond the short term.

Europe's industry is rethinking its future, its minds focused on the fall in investment from a high of €129 billion in 2011 to its lowest of €58.5 billion last year.

The newly branded WindEurope seeks to draw a line under its EWEA days as an association championing a new energy source to one promoting a competitive and mainstream generator of electricity. If the several hundred people who gathered in Brussels to celebrate the new logo are any measure, it is a strategy with widespread support.

Long-term thinking in the US has long been hindered by on/off federal backing for the PTC. Now, enjoying certainty over the level of support for the next five years, manufacturers and developers are ready to pick up the challenge of cleaning up America's electricity generation. Around 80GW of coal-powered capacity will be retired over the next ten years, and wind is well-placed to fill much of that shortfall.

Wind has not had the level of state policy support enjoyed by China and some European countries, while the climate change agenda has been conspicuous by its absence until very recently. But it has kept a focus on efficiency and productivity. Last year it generated 191 million MWh from 74GW of wind capacity. China, with not far off double that in operation, managed only 185 million MWh.

These figures speak volumes on the importance of siting wind projects in the right places with the required supporting infrastructure, selecting well-proven, reliable and durable turbines, and, above all, managing, monitoring and maintaining them.

Government support

One example of federal intervention came with the collapse of the Clipper firm and its flawed four-generator Liberty 2.5MW turbine. The US government commissioned a software firm to develop a digital clone to discover how and what to repair, allowing the owners of the 500-plus turbines across the US to continue running them with relative ease.

Today's US wind developers can call upon a wide variety of experienced independent and third-party service providers to keep their machinery in top condition.

GE turbine gearboxes can be replaced with improved units that promise a longer life, while commercial digital turbine clones are starting to be used to predict problems on working units and demonstrate the efficacy of different remedies.

The mood music at the American Wind Energy Association's (AWEA) annual conference at New Orleans on 23-26 May will be upbeat. The industry is on an upward curve, confident in its ability to provide green energy at competitive cost.

The only cloud on the horizon — that an incoming Republican president might try to unpick President Obama's Clean Power Plan, or back out of the Paris climate change treaty — is unlikely to rain on this parade.