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The Future Of Wind Power

Published on 01 Nov 2012  |   Written by    |   Be the first to comment!

By George Dearing

With an industry tax credit in jeopardy and new projects at a virtual standstill in the U.S., you might have expected the wind industry to come limping into RETECH2012. Instead, the audience heard from a sector that’s honing in on what it can control -- namely cost reductions and innovation.

“We haven’t placed any orders for turbines for 2013,” said First Wind’s Julia Bovey in the opening remarks. That’s been the norm in 2012 for wind developers and turbine manufacturers as utilities and power purchasers have adopted a wait-and-see approach when it comes to the Production Tax Credit (PTC). 

 As a result, she added, three primary drivers have taken hold: reducing costs, improving turbine technology, and accessing capital in different ways.

Life Beyond The PTC

While the PTC has taken up much of the industry’s focus, wind proponents like Bovey and other green advocates are pushing for other ways to access capital. Two that have captured the discussion recently are master limited partnerships (MLPs) and real estate investment trusts (REITs). Both are used by oil and gas companies and have driven more than $300 billion in private investment. Here’s the way it was described in a NYT Op-Ed piece.

“Some economists and green tech entrepreneurs have advocated a change in federal tax law to allow renewable energy companies to use a tax-advantaged investment device known as a master limited partnership, which has attracted $350 billion in private investment but is limited to oil and gas extraction and pipeline projects. Another proposal is to allow real estate investment trusts, which are like mutual funds for real estate, to cover energy transmission networks and renewable energy generation.”

The wind industry says the subsidy discussion is really about equal footing. An LA Times report showed how lopsided it can seem depending on the data being analyzed.

“Fossil-fuel producers reap tax accounting breaks such as the depletion allowance, which is worth an estimated $1 billion a year, according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, a Washington think tank created to advise Congress on energy policy. Tax-expensing options for drillers bring them $1.9 billion a year. Relief on royalty payments due to drillers on government property: $53 billion over the lifetime of the leases.”

However the subsidies play out, panelists agreed something similar to the current renewable portfolio standard should be a goal. As much of a hot potato that it might be politically, more than thirty states are already enrolled to spark renewable growth. As one of the speakers mentioned, RPS is the closest thing we have to a national clean energy standard.

Innovation Brings Multiple Benefits  

The pace of innovation in the wind business was certainly one of the bright spots. Taylor Geer, with energy consultancy Garrad Hassan, said turbine efficiency and reliability have improved dramatically over the last five years, something he attributes to better manufacturing processes and more R&D earmarked for things like forecasting and storage.

“We definitely have a better idea of what we need to look like within three-to-five years,” said Geer. “Not to mention we’re getting a better sense of what our cost of energy will be, and that’s a big lift.” Like other panelists, Greer emphasized the impact that energy storage would have on levelizing electricity costs. As the storage infrastructure improves, most agreed wind farms would likely resemble a generation model closer to conventional power plants.

To get a sense of how fast turbine technology is evolving, you can look at “repowering” efforts, which replace older turbines with new ones. According to Jeff Schlichting at wind developer Sustainable Legacy, one turbine can now replace up to five others as wind farms are upgraded.

Taking Costs Out Of The System

Cost reduction was another area where technology improvements are having an impact. But it’s not just better rotor technology or lighter materials that are helping, it’s supply chain efficiencies and the way wind farms are commissioned. “As the industry has matured, we’ve gotten better at everything from construction to logistics,” said Schlichting. “

And perhaps a sign of that maturity was the fact that IBM was on hand to address the operations and management (O&M) market for wind. According to Biren Gandhi of IBM Global Business Services, O&M costs can approach one-third of the total capital expenditures for a wind farm.

The company was pitching its IT-driven approach to managing large-scale wind operations, experience that it’s gained from running big servers and cloud applications for customers in the automotive industry and other manufacturing-intensive operations. IBM projects the O&M market could grow by as much as $6 billion over the next decade.

George Dearing is a communications consultant and freelance journalist from Austin, Texas and is providing coverage from RETECH2012.  Forward questions to George Dearing [ This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ]

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