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In the Mainstream: Wind Turbines Take Off

New technologies are helping windpower mature as a viable power supply choice for utilities.

Fortnightly Magazine - June 2006

Few people understand how to ride shifting winds better than Jim Dehlsen does.

Dehlsen founded Zond Energy Systems 25 years ago, and steered the company through a series of major changes and challenges—the oil-price collapse of the 1980s; ambivalent energy policies, with on-again, off-again production tax credits; and the sale of controlling interests in Zond to Enron in the late 1990s.

Should it come as any surprise, then, that Dehlsen still is bullish on windpower’s prospects?

“The market is finally coming alive for wind,” says Dehlsen, CEO of Clipper Windpower, a highly Zondesque upstart that he co-founded with his son in 2001. “We’ve been at it for a long time. But only in the last couple of years have we seen a real willingness to make wind part of the mainstream power supply. And a lot of it is coming from utilities.”

Some of the reasons are simple. For starters, market economics have made windpower more attractive than it once was. While prices for fossil fuels have oscillated wildly, wind’s operating costs have held relatively steady. As a result, windpower has emerged as a nice, environmentally benign hedge against fuel-price risks, even if it isn’t a big percentage of total generation.

But the current enthusiasm for windpower also is attributable to last year’s renewal of federal production tax credits (PTC) for wind and other renewable energy sources, and a generally favorable political climate for extending the PTC again. At least two Senate bills were introduced earlier this year that would extend the credits (S.2398 and S.2401), and soaring energy prices are strengthening to PTC-renewal efforts.

Whether because of market forces or political fortune, wind energy seems to be sweeping into the power-industry mainstream. Such banking institutions as Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, GE Capital, and Standard Chartered Bank are putting big money into wind development. The new giant wind machines are generating up to 6 MW each, and true utility-scale wind projects are no longer a novelty. Technology advancements and new regulatory guidelines are facilitating grid integration, and new assembly plants in the United States have been announced. Even if they haven’t entered full production, they have at least begun prototyping, and turning out some promising new designs.

But where these trends will lead depends on factors that are difficult to predict today. First-generation megawatt-scale turbines have suffered a raft of costly gearbox failures, and the durability of the latest multi-megawatt turbines has not been tested over a 20- or 30-year life span.

Although fuel-price pressures seem unlikely to abate any time soon, policy approaches for encouraging renewables remain in flux. The U.S. wind market has been weirdly distorted by a combination of ambivalent regulatory treatment and a technology patent that has limited turbine choices.

Given these uncertainties, only time will tell whether the current boom signals windpower’s entry into the utility mainstream in America, or just another updraft in a notoriously

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