United States

United States

Building a national wind vision for getting to twenty per cent

Google Translate

Spurred by a comment earlier this year from President George Bush that wind power has the potential to meet 20% of US electricity needs, much of the discussion at last month's American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) conference centred on how, or even if, the country's wind industry should tackle that target.

"No one can credential this technology in quite the same way as the President of the United States," AWEA executive director Randy Swisher told delegates. "We are taking his word seriously and we intend to step forward with a roadmap to demonstrate how we can make that potential real. We intend to develop and execute a strategy to maximize wind's market share over time."

Throughout the debate at the Pittsburgh conference on exactly what the elements of that roadmap should be, one fact became obvious. The magnitude of the task, whether calculated in terms of energy or capacity, is enormous. Estimates of the volume of wind needed to hit the 20% mark ranged from 250,000 MW to 340,000 MW. Starting at the 13,000 MW of wind power likely to be in place in the US by the end of this year and growing at 9% a year, the expected annual growth rate of the global demand for wind turbines over the next three years, installed capacity in 20 years would still reach only 180,000 MW, said GE Energy's Victor Abate. Other speakers estimated the US industry would have to install 15,000-20,000 MW a year, which is five to seven times the expected 2006 build-out, at a projected investment of half a trillion dollars. "Clearly this is a national challenge and something that is going to make the industry dramatically different if we embark on this path," said Abate.

One of the most dramatic differences will have to come in wind turbine production capacity. "If you look at 2006, we are going to install a wind turbine about every four hours in this country. If you want to get to 20% wind you are going to have to have the ability to install a wind turbine every 15 minutes. That means every five minutes you have a blade coming out of a factory," said Abate. "This looks like a different model. It almost looks like our appliance business."

Andrew Garrad of global wind energy consultancy firm Garrad Hassan, put it another way. He projected that 330 GW of installed wind power capacity would be needed for wind to provide 20% of America's electricity by 2020, requiring wind turbine production to ramp up to an annual growth rate of 30%, falling to 20% by 2012 and 7% by 2020. He pointed out that in Europe, the wind industry had already demonstrated that a growth rate of 30% was achievable. To reach the 20% goal, production of blades for the American market must increase from 5000 a year today to 35,000 by 2020, while gearbox manufacturers need to move from an annual production of 2500 units to 10,000 a year to meet needs in the US alone. Garrad reminded delegates that wind power equipment suppliers will have other markets to serve at the same time. "The rest of the world is not just going to sit around and let you take all this capacity," he said. Beyond sheer volume, the industry will have to reach beyond its technological borders in other ways to build more reliable, more productive turbines and develop new integration and storage strategies. "The great thing about the 20% is that it is enough of a stretch to require some breakthroughs," said Frank O'Brien-Bernini of Owens Corning, which provides fibreglass materials for blades and other wind turbine components. Ivan Brems of Hansen Transmission told delegates a 20% target would require ten to 15 large scale gearbox manufacturing facilities in the US alone. "I believe the capital will be available if we can prove it is a viable risk," he said.

The lack of a long term, sustainable policy in the US has so far kept component and turbine suppliers from taking that risk -- and that will have to change, speakers agreed, if wind's penetration is to even approach 20%. "There is no model that gets us there in a short period of time. So if you go down this path, this is a commitment for a significant period of time," said Abate.

Not all industry players were convinced it is a path the industry should be taking, including the senior vice-president of one the largest owners of wind power in the world. Drawing on baseball for an analogy, FPL Energy's Mike O'Sullivan called the wind business "a singles and doubles" game. "You put runs up on the board by being routine and building every 100 MW one project at a time. When we start looking at 300,000 and 400,000 megawatt of possible capacity we lose focus on what this game is."

Concentrating on the "feel good" aspect of wind's potential, he said, risks losing sight of the economics that drive the business. "At the end of the day we are all trying to attract capital to this business." On a practical level, O'Sullivan pointed to transmission and interconnection as a serious limiting factor -- the load is not where the resource is. "There is not 300,000 or 400,000 megawatt of capacity at 35-40% net capacity factors that match load, transmission interconnection and wind resource," he said. "The wind in this country tends to be where people do not live."

High priority

Alexander Karsner, the assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy at the US Department of Energy, energetically supported the 20% goal, although admitted that transmission will be a major challenge. "Unlocking the wind resources of the nation and delivering them to load centres has got to be among the highest single priorities in achieving a large national wind vision."

He expressed frustration at industry leaders who doubt the 20% target. "Maybe is not a message I want to be hearing from our corporate leaders," he told delegates. Developing a roadmap to 20% is going to require new ways of thinking about the wind and the involvement of industry leaders. Speaking on behalf of the Bush Administration, he said: "We are going to encourage that thinking and we are going engage in the dialogues and we are going to take on these dilemmas and together hopefully we can do it. But we can't do it apart," he said. "This is really going to be what we make it."

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles
and free email bulletins.

Sign up now
Already registered?
Sign in