The conference reconfirmed the impact of restructuring's uncertainty and of seemingly ever cheaper natural gas. Most surviving American companies -- and there are now even fewer fully fledged US wind companies -- must try and eke out a living overseas or in niche markets. Even larger areas of possibility domestically, with more sizeable funding and opportunities that may be little more than crumbs from the table of what has been dubbed the "carbon club," at times have seemed beset by squabbling within the renewables community.
The exception is Zond Corp, now that it has been bought by aggressively growing Texas energy giant Enron. Its cornering of the largest Midwestern contracts should ensure that it dominates America's wind industry for the next few years. That acquisition, announced in January, is the single most important event in wind in the last few years, noted Norm Terreri of Green Mountain Power Corp and former president of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), in the opening session. Symbolically enough, it also emerged at the conference that from now Zond will be known as Enron Wind Corp (EWC) when it develops wind projects -- and presumably when it goes for utility contracts. Its hardware, though, will be designed under the Zond Energy Systems name, and the turbine series will remain known as the Z Series.
Windpower '97, from June 15-18 in the state capital of oil-rich Texas, drew 425 participants, a decrease from 510 a year earlier in Denver, Colorado. The 27th annual conference and exhibition of AWEA, the three day event was also sponsored by the US Department of Energy (DOE) and the government run National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), as well as the wind friendly Green Mountain Power Corp of Vermont.
The most stunning news that broke during the conference was the bankruptcy of FloWind Corp, one of the few US wind companies left. The voluntary filing had been anticipated for the last year (story page 31). Also notable, in terms of industry news at least, was the virtual absence of representatives from ailing New World Power Corp.
At the same time the low profile SeaWest Energy Systems of San Diego, which bought up the assets of the large Wyoming proposal from bankrupt Kenetech Corp (story page 16), was more evident in the public portions of the annual conference than in a while. Even so, the insiders' nature of the event was underscored in the exhibition, with Cannon Energy the only company to bring in a wind turbine. Wind may be the fastest growing energy technology, but even with signs that top governments might start taking global warming and air pollution seriously, at Windpower '97 it seemed that wind's role as a distinct, albeit small, industry is becoming less definite than ever.
That was also highlighted in other ways. The space was suitably huge, given that it was in the Lone Star State -- where everything is meant to be giant sized -- but some exhibitors noted that the traffic through the hall was thin, despite's Cannon's display of a Wind Eagle 300. Several engineering oriented visitors expressed disappointment that there was not more to view.
But the most amused remarks behind the scenes were directed at Enron Wind Corp. The company's sparse exhibit did not include a Z series turbine, a model that is to sweep the country, at least in terms of hundreds of megawatt of installed wind projects. The word was that one of the turbines, which has become something akin to a mythical beast in the wind industry, would actually be displayed. But at the conference, the rumour was that it had been mis-shipped and sent somewhere other than Austin, Texas, along with other Enron exhibit material. True or not, there was no Zond turbine there.
The most memorable of the papers at Windpower '97 focused on climate warming and carbon sequestration, an appropriate theme with the sea change in attitude beginning to emerge at top levels in the US and Europe in the last few weeks. During the conference, comments by President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore on greenhouse warming were welcomed as a sign that the industry may pick up in a few years' time. Excitement too was palpable over the trail blazing decision by Oregon, which has just passed America's first mandatory measures to control CO2 emissions (story page 29).
Windpower '97's emphasis on the larger issues of climate and of dirty fuels also seemed appropriate given that its discussions about green pricing had to focus, depressingly enough, on disclosure and certification in the marketing and advertising of clean power. Behind the scenes a notable topic of discussion, especially among Midwestern participants, was the seemingly dishonest attempt by Northern States Power of Minneapolis to include wind development already mandated by state law in green pricing programmes where consumers will pay a surcharge.
Another talking point was the lack of political interest. Reflecting the lagging US market, quite a few participants commented rather grumpily about the loss of genuine interest nowadays from all but the most innovative of utilities and government bureaucrats. It has also been clear for some time that interest in Washington DC in pro-renewables policy has been scant. That lack of attention was underscored by the fact that the conference was not addressed by a Department of Energy (DOE) official senior enough to be an appointee. Indeed it did not draw a politician elected to the US Congress, only a Texas state representative and a member of the Austin city council.
Innovation via government at the state level was more apparent, especially because of the conference location. Texas, the second most populous state in America which consumes more electricity on average even than the US as a whole, seems to recognise renewables' potential to an unusual degree, in part because the oil producing state has been used to energy self sufficiency. When that changed and Texas became a net energy importer two or three years ago, the independent minded state started to embrace renewables.
Texas will hardly change overnight from a state known for big energy as well as big energy consumption, the archetypal site of the movie "Giant" with its wild-catter and oil rigs, to a place known for cactus huggers. But it does seem on the way towards intending to adopt renewables for a sizeable portion of its electricity needs. The state Department of Commerce -- a conference co-sponsor -- was also one of 20 exhibitors, along with the Texas General Land Office (GLO), which manages state land use and which developed a 35 MW wind plant in west Texas with the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA). Significantly, the Department of Commerce had also participated at the World Sustainable Energy Trade Fair in Europe last month and will also be a co-sponsor of the Renewable Energy in the Americas 97 hemispheric conference in Rio de Janeiro this month. Indeed a primary finding of the state appointed Sustainable Energy Development Council, in its 1995 strategic plan, was that all projected electrical demand by 2010 can be met by renewables or efficiency at prices equal to or below the average retail electric prices Texans pay today.
A whirlwind tour of some wind facilities in the Lone Star State before Windpower '97 was apparently successful, drawing a sizeable group of 125 or so to the remote 35 MW Kenetech Van Horn wind plant many hundreds of miles away. The plant sends power to LCRA, a federal agency that sells wholesale electricity and water in all 58 counties in Texas and to the City of Austin. When completed, the project was considered highly symbolic, not only because it was the state's first wind plant, but also because it was built on a site owned by the GLO, which traditionally leased land for oil and gas.
In the papers at Windpower '97, seemingly fewer than in previous years thus making for a relatively light load for participants, there was noticeably less information on international markets, financing and from utilities. It was apparently just not the place to convey information. Projections of future wind power development -- constantly touted as the fastest growing energy technology worldwide -- were frequent. In the end, the barrage of predictions was so constant that it became overkill and seemed to underscore too starkly that there has been little to boast about in the US in the last year or two.
Randy Swisher, executive director of AWEA, summed up the state of America's wind industry as mixed. On the one hand, he said, wind's rapid growth over the last five years is expected to continue, with the world adding more than 14,300 MW over the next decade, but just 25 MW this year in the US and 250 MW in 1998. The spectre of restructuring had pushed the US wind industry down to a low water mark in 1996, when a pitiful 10 MW in installed capacity was added, he recalled. For AWEA, the highest legislative priority this year is to get the wind energy tax credits extended beyond mid 1999. Also important are bills governing market restructuring, both at the federal level and the state level, especially California.
FEDERAL JUMP START
At the federal level, the new shape of the market could jump start wind, Swisher said, although he reiterated that it is doubtful that federal legislation will be completed even by next year. There has been in-fighting at state level amongst renewables technologies over the $0.5 billion outcome of California's renewables portfolio standard. "It isn't everything we should have got," Swisher lamented. In the US, customer choice is inevitable, he continued, and it will be good news if it is done right. Another 600 MW in installed capacity, he reminded participants, will most likely be added in America this decade, while 3000 MW, at least, is very possible within the decade.
But it was the other "strategic driver" mentioned by Swisher that now seems most exciting -- global climate change. The green market is promising, but it is a fragile market and consumer confidence is crucial. "We should never take the fact that we are seen as an environmental technology for granted," he cautioned, noting that James Udall of Colorado's Community Office for Resource Efficiency has said, "Clean power is not just a product, clean power is a value." That comment seemed particularly apt, given the sensitivity of claims of "greenness." Insiders at the conference noted that it has become an issue in Colorado, where the utility Public Service Co is launching its Windsource green pricing programme. Customers are being sought via the membership lists of groups such as the Sierra Club -- and there are ten groups that have promised to buy the power. But the Sierra Club has not yet taken an official stand on the programme, despite the implication in local Denver newspaper articles.
America's diminished role in the international market was a theme. The goal of the DOE, said Peter Goldman, the department's acting deputy director of the PV and wind programmes, is to ensure the US supplies one-quarter of the machines installed overseas by early next century and that, by 2020, wind generates 20-30 times the electricity in the US than it does today. Ken Karas of EWC, formerly Zond, predicted that by 1998 the US will be one of the most robust markets again "actually to our surprise," though the loss of the tax credits would the next year dent the industry's gains in the domestic market.
As always, he insisted that "cost of energy" is the key driver, sounding strangely at odds with the more long term view that the need to deal with climate change holds the real market. The other key to wind's future in a competitive market place with much consolidation will be based on non-technical factors, said Karas, such as the ability to access customers directly and on trade issues. Karas concluded by lauding the US Export-Import Bank's tied aid for China (story page 18) simply because it will level the playing field and give US companies the advantages he claims have been long available to European companies.
Especially visionary at the conference was Carl Weinberg, now a consultant but formerly with the utility Pacific Gas & Electric. In tune with the climate change theme, he predicted that within five years there will be an international move on CO2 sequestration. Reserves of fossil fuels -- " the drug of modern civilisation" -- are more vast than we thought until recently, he noted. And that Faustian bargain that nature has given to us cannot be ignored. Governments will not take leadership and market leaders will not be the radical innovators so needed.
Renewables will be introduced, he said, by new structural organisations with customer choice and some help from government. If customers choose renewables, no politician will stand in their way. "But the people will have to storm the train station to get the government to leave," he said, paraphrasing Ghandi. He recalled, too, that without being coerced or cajoled, utilities had built only 5 MW of wind in the US. "In the future world, the customer will be central," he concluded.
Michael Noble, of Minnesotans for an Energy Efficient Economy (ME3), gave a powerful paper entitled "Climate Chaos: Is the Public Catching on?" He says it will not be green marketing that vastly expands opportunities for wind -- but that the public will insist upon carbon free energy once they realise the seriousness of global warming. Yet the political clout of fossil fuels is such that they spent $10 million in Congressional races in the last three years -- and reaped $4 billion in special tax breaks in the same period. ME3's goal is to build a base of green citizens -- not green consumers -- to get renewables at lowest cost. Noble cited the group's push for a law that would essentially use a carbon tax to help create local jobs (Windpower Monthly, May 1997).
Indeed it was the power of green citizenship that led to the so-called "Minnesota mandate" of 425 MW of wind -- putting the state at the lead of the domestic wind industry -- and 125 MW biomass. Once installed, the wind will cost the average Minnesota family just $0.35 monthly. "Americans will soon agree that we should tackle this climate problem, and it is the job of the wind energy industry to be ready to do its part, and to help develop the conditions to make that paradigm shift possible," he concluded.
Perhaps the most poignant moment came from Tom "Smitty" Smith of Texas Public Citizen. Alluding to more than Austin's own humid, hot weather, Smitty said with his Texas drawl, "It's hot out there and it's getting hotter." He reminded participants of surveys showing that citizens want clean power -- and of the state's strategic plan for sustainable energy. Nothing was more effective as this man holding up a 23 pound bag of dirt, the amount of air pollution he said produced by a single person monthly. "People are beginning to get scared. Renewables are ready and we are a powerful alternative to pollution as usual," he said.