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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

turbulent business.

Best Year Ever

Business is booming for wind-turbine manufacturers. Worldwide, 2005 reportedly was the “best year ever” in the windpower industry, according to Danish wind consultants BTM Consult ApS. Turbine sales spiked 40 percent from 2004, with 11.4 GW of wind turbines sold, and last year’s frenzied pace continues in 2006. Assembly plants are piecing together nacelles and rotors as quickly as they can get the parts for them, and virtually all major vendors selling into the United States have pre-sold their turbine output through the end of 2007.

“The PTC is the driver of installations in the United States,” says Robert Gleitz, general manager with GE Power Systems’ wind business. “We see the United States as a booming market until the end of 2007. The big question is what will happen after the PTC expires, if it isn’t extended.”

Although prospects for extending the PTC seem favorable, regulatory uncertainty has served to limit the potential of windpower in this country. Turbine manufacturers have learned the hard way that investing in U.S. manufacturing is a risky proposition, and their concerns logically pass through to the companies that supply their hard parts. “We are facing a tough situation with the supply chain,” Gleitz says. “Getting components is a real challenge. With the on-and-off situation created by the PTC, our suppliers don’t have sufficient visibility into markets to put money on the table and invest in additional manufacturing capacity.”

The practical effects of this manufacturing bottleneck are twofold. First, it means prices for wind turbines have increased dramatically—reportedly 20 to 30 percent. Second it means only a certain number of new turbines will be available, whether more projects could capitalize on the PTC or not.

Also, U.S. developers can’t always access the full range of turbine equipment available in the international market, exacerbating this situation. For example, Enercon GmbH of Germany builds the largest turbine in the world—the 6 MW E-112. But Enercon has no U.S. sales offices, and its turbines have been notably absent from U.S. wind markets since GE prevailed in a lawsuit and effectively enjoined Enercon from selling its variable-speed machines here without a technology license. In 2004, Enercon and GE settled their dispute with a joint licensing agreement, but that agreement has not yielded any U.S. sales announcements from Enercon.

Likewise Gamesa Eólica of Spain announced a licensing agreement with GE that would allow Gamesa to sell its variable-speed turbines in the United States. In February, Gamesa announced plans to build three additional manufacturing facilities in Pennsylvania to supply its 2-MW G8X variable-speed turbines for U.S. customers, with manufacturing set to begin as early as this summer.

A wider range of equipment choices would benefit the U.S. wind market, but GE’s patent has not created an insurmountable barrier for manufacturers seeking entry into U.S. markets. GE is the U.S. market leader by far, selling 60 percent of the turbine capacity installed in 2005, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). But Vestas of Denmark, the global market leader, built nearly one turbine out of every three sold