United States

United States

Technology failures promt huge doubts

The 6 MW Kenetech wind farm operated by the Sacramento Utility District (SMUD) is facing so many breakdowns that the utility is likely to consider taking some of the turbines off-line. The faltering 17 turbine wind plant, in Solano County in California, has been plagued by so many problems that its future is being weighed in a report by Peter Taylor, SMUD's director of power generation. He says three of the Model 33 MVS turbines now have cracked gearboxes, which would cost some $50,000 each to replace. He estimates the wind farm, in the last year, has operated at one half to two-thirds of its expected level.

Taylor, who is drafting the detailed report on the wind farm's future for SMUD's board of directors, says the conclusion he is "moving towards" is to recommend that it is not worth repairing those with cracked gearboxes. It is also possible that SMUD will replace the turbines with those of another manufacturer, if reliable turbines can be found that produce electricity as cheaply as SMUD can nowadays buy power. Or the remaining turbines may be operated at lower speeds to reduce stress, he says. The situation is not helped by poor winds this year.

The $5 million Solano wind plant has had problems with cracked blades, oil leakage and general reliability, he says. "I think the issue is, we've spent a very large amount of money on these wind turbines since Kenetech went bankrupt." It is just not worth investing more money in them, he says. The board had already decided last year that it would not expand the project to the full 50 MW that had been initially planned if the first phase were satisfactory.

Expensive to repair

Before Kenetech Windpower went bankrupt, by filing for Chapter 11 protection last May, SMUD had a fixed price contract for operation and maintenance. "As soon as they went bankrupt, they abrogated those contracts," he says. But even before the bankruptcy, he says the repairs were too frequent.

"One of the reasons they went into bankruptcy is that these machines were so expensive to repair." And now SMUD must pay Kenetech in advance for all repairs and then wait while parts are ordered and delivered. Taylor says that new turbines could be bought to replace the Kenetech units, but only if they produce power for $0.025-0.030/kWh.

Taylor's report is likely to go to SMUD general manager Jan Schori sometime this month, although it may not be considered until December by the full board. But even then, it is only a recommendation. And some board members are publicly expressing huge doubts about the project's future. "It's probably the biggest disappointment of my SMUD involvement," board member Peter Keat told the Sacramento Bee, the leading local newspaper, in an article published last month. "We had such great hopes for it." Keat also said that he thinks the wind farm has only a 50% chance of surviving the board's scrutiny, especially with the deregulation of the electricity market. "We're having to tighten our belts across the board, and one of our targets is renewable energy sources," he said.

Meantime, more than 1300 customers have signed up with SMUD for the utility's green electricity programme, the first available in California. Just a month earlier, in mid September, the number who had signed up for the Greenergy programme was just over 1100. The utility says that Greenergy is to help bring additional resources on line. Customers sign up for an extra penny per kWh, which will be matched by 100% in new renewables capacity. Customers can also donate an extra half penny per kWh to support renewables more generally, says SMUD, although their green dollars will not be matched with new green capacity. In addition to the wind farm, SMUD has hydro, geothermal and solar resources.

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