United States

United States

Left behind in the boom

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As the wind industry grows ever bigger, one group is feeling increasingly left out: proponents for so-called community wind projects, loosely defined as small developments, sometimes just a single turbine, with financial structures often based on local ownership. Returns from such projects to the local community are typically higher than from commercial developments.

A community wind meeting was held as part of last month's annual conference of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). It provided a glimpse at what delegates heard was a growing rift between those involved in community wind power and what they regard as a mainstream commercial industry muscling them out. Lisa Daniels, director of Minnesota-based Windustry, a leading community wind organisation, openly questioned whether community wind advocates should start thinking about having their own annual industry conference apart from AWEA's event. In response, AWEA's Susan Sloan said community wind advocates should consider forming a committee within AWEA. But it is something that "has to come up through the membership, similar to what small wind did."

The bigger issue for Dan Juhl, a long time advocate of the community wind concept, is turbine availability. He decries the disappearance of smaller machines, saying that the large multi-megawatt turbines of today are incompatible with community wind aspirations. "The industry is going big, big, big and when these machines break, they break with a vengeance," said Juhl, referring to the relatively higher costs of operating and maintaining bigger turbines. "The industry going big means that smaller machines -- even one and one half megawatt units -- the big guys don't want those turbines," said Juhl. This is driving availability and production of turbines away from the smaller units that Juhl believes are more reliable, practical and manageable for community wind developments.

Deal junkies

Getting turbines, regardless of size, is tough for small players, with demand outstripping supply and big developers ordering hundreds of megawatt way ahead of intended installation. Juhl called the big guys with their framework deals, and multi-megawatt units, the "deal-junkies." One possible silver lining, however, is that some turbine suppliers are realising that the big commercial projects take a relatively longer and less certain time from conception to construction than small community wind projects. Juhl says this creates a sweet spot in the manufacturing and turbine sales cycle that allows the major suppliers to come up with a few extra units for community wind projects.

There may yet be room for the two to coexist. Andrew Young from heavyweight developer Horizon Wind Energy said the early lessons of wind power should not be forgotten in a market limited by lack of transmission capacity. "Let's not forget about small wind and the European model. When cumulatively we add those up, there is a significant amount of capacity that winds up being on the system," said Young. "Those smaller projects don't need those sorts of [transmission] improvements to the grid. Twenty megawatt and less in size doesn't seem to raise the eyebrows of people in wind development space."

The industry's fixation on large scale development can be directly attributed to wind's federal production tax credit, said Young. Smaller 5-20 MW projects do not attract the investors with large appetites for tax credits, he said. "We have to be thinking more macro on this as opposed to the mega projects, although many companies out here, including ours, are focused on mega-scale projects.

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