New projects threat to old revenues

Up to 127 MW of repowering of old wind farms is now poised to start in the Altamont Pass in northern California. But the owners of turbines downwind of the proposed new installations have filed an appeal with the local authorities that could lead to serious delays. They fear the installation of larger machines upwind could cast a wind shadow over their projects, reducing the output -- and earnings -- of the turbines.

County planners in late October gave the go-ahead to a broad plan to guide repowering of the area after three long years of work by officials and wind companies. Individual permits were issued on November 10 to three developers -- -Green Ridge Power LLC, Altamont Power LLC and Venture Pacific Inc/SeaWest -- for their proposals to revamp as much as one-fifth of Altamont Pass.

The timing is tight. Developers have seven months to complete projects so they can qualify for the federal Production Tax Credit (PTC). The existing PTC is especially important for California repowerings. A current proposal to extend the tax credit, backed by wind advocates and major utilities and to be introduced as a legislative bill in the US Congress next year, would prohibit repowered projects in California from being eligible for the incentive.

Now even the tight PTC timetable is threatened. Last month, lawyers for the owners of a group of existing turbines filed a formal appeal against both the approval of the Altamont Pass repowering plan and the individual permits. The existing turbines, 800 Kenetech 56-100 models, are mostly downwind of Green Ridge and Altamont Power's repowering proposals. They are owned by Windpower Partners 1987 Limited Partnership and Windpower Partners 1988 Limited Partnership. The partnerships fear estimated losses of up to $200,000 a year, says Steven Buckley, senior planner at Alameda County. Attorneys for the owners are suggesting a more limited repowering, or just a pilot project of new large turbines that could be studied.

The dispute was due to be aired at a December 3 meeting of the county Board of Supervisors, according to Buckley. It is not at all clear that it will be settled then and there. Buckley says that county officials -- who want the repowering to go ahead -- have not yet decided whether the county should have a formal role in such a dispute, or whether the opposing factions should resolve their differences themselves, perhaps ultimately in court.

Solution sought

Discussions were apparently under way between the two sides in late November. Developers of the new projects were being close lipped about their eventual size. "We'll have to wait," said Dale Thomas for the FPL Group, the largest company behind the Green Ridge and Altamont Power proposals. Veteran California developer SeaWest was reportedly also considering its course of action, although its proposal is not as close to existing turbines.

The Green Ridge repowering is on sites once owned by Kenetech Windpower, with 64 MW proposed by the company, which consists of FPL Energy and M&N, a joint venture between Danish NEG Micon A/S and Nichimen of Japan. The new turbines will replace up to 644 of 1467 Kenetech turbines with up to 92 new ones. The sites were acquired from the bankrupt estate of Kenetech.

Altamont Power intends to repower sites previously owned and developed by FloWind Corporation, the US developer and manufacturer that sought bankruptcy protection. Altamont Power, which consists of part of the FPL group, and the MNR group -- itself made up of Mitsubishi, NEG Micon Inc, and Renewable Energy Systems of Britain -- has obtained approved to take out 194 existing machines and replace them with 45 NEG Micon 700 kW turbines. The total capacity of new machines would be 31.50 MW.

The third and final Altamont Pass repowering is by Venture Pacific/SeaWest Windfarms, which is proposing 42-50, 600 kW turbines. In planning documents, it lists the turbine vendor as NEG Micon, Mitsubishi or NedWind, a Dutch subsidiary of NEG Micon. Its repowering could replace up to 432 of its 433 existing turbines -- Windmatics, Polenkos, Micons and Enertechs.

Strict guidelines

Whatever the outcome of the December 3 public meeting, oversight of any wind development in the Altamont Pass will be far more structured than during the previous 20 years. The last time any substantial number of turbines was approved was in 1988. The number of operating wind turbines has dropped from its peak, of 7300 in 1993, to a current 5400. Because of the age and low output of many of the turbines, the Altamont Pass in 1995 represented 37% of the state's installed wind capacity -- but generated just 32% of the output.

The wind development plan requires new capacity to be capped at the current level of 583 MW. The most severe constraints are to protect birds. Professional avian surveys will be mandatory for the first two years of a new project, on top of any "incidental" reports of bird deaths. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory is also to do surveys on avian kills. Previously some wind companies -- most notably Kenetech -- had monitored birds voluntarily, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The so-called "European model" of wind turbine is now the standard -- three-bladed on a tubular tower with a rated capacity of 500 kW-1 MW. The colour must be neutral and non-reflecting and the nacelle fully enclosed to protect birds. Development is highly restricted in some parts of the 20,000 hectare area where there are most birds. A technical advisory group is being appointed to consist of local, state and federal officials, wind people and technical advisors. Bonds totalling $12,000 per developer must be posted to ensure compliance with noise standards.