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Wind Industry's Future Could Be Bright -- or Cloudy

Clint Wilder's picture

Mention wind power in polite company these days, and soon you'll likely be talking about the folks on Cape Cod who don't want to gaze at offshore wind turbines. Yes, the world's most famous (or infamous) wind farm is one that doesn't yet, and may never, exist. But anyone who cares to look past the colorful controversy of Cape Wind's proposed Nantucket Sound wind farm will see a growing, healthy U.S. industry wrapping up a banner year. Not bad in a sputtering economy lacking a coherent energy policy, especially for renewables. U.S. utilities will install more than 1,600 megawatts of new wind power capacity by the end of this year, predicts the American Wind Energy Association. That's a 34% increase, the industry's second-best year ever. On track for completion in 2003 are the nation's largest wind farm - 136 turbines producing 204 MW for FPL Energy in eastern New Mexico -- and its fifth-largest, a 162 MW project with 108 turbines in Lamar, Colo. named Colorado Green. This year's new generating capacity gives the U.S. wind industry a five-year average growth rate of 23% and puts it on track to meet AWEA's goal of 6% of the nation's electricity - 100,000 MW -- produced from wind by 2020. Wind turbines now generate power in 29 states. It's not just coincidence that 2003 is the first full year in which the Financial Times' perennial most-respected company has been playing in the wind power game. General Electric, which acquired the wind turbine business of Enron Wind for $285 million in bankruptcy court in May 2002, has come to wind energy with deep pockets, global corporate clout, breakthrough technologies, and decades of experience selling to the world's largest utilities. It holds the exclusive U.S. patent for a variable-speed turbine and is field-testing the world's largest wind turbine, capable of 3.6 MW, for commercial availability next year. At its design and assembly plant in Salzbergen, Germany, GE Wind even contracted with BP Solar to install a photovoltaic system on the building's roof. "Most people agree that GE is good for the perception of the industry," says AWEA spokeswoman Kathy Belyeu. "They put a lot of money into research and marketing, and they are comfortable with the entire range of players in power generation." GE Wind Energy's results so far speak for themselves: $2 billion in orders in its first year, said CEO Jeffrey Immelt at GE's annual meeting. Of the 1,600 megawatts of new capacity in the U.S. this year, 52% are generated by GE turbines. And GE Wind is a huge player around the world, hawking its turbines from Portugal to Inner Mongolia to the United Arab Emirates. The business, part of GE Power Systems, is seeking to focus on turbine manufacturing and sales, and wean itself from development projects inherited from Enron. Late last month, GE Wind netted $212 million selling its ownership in Colorado Green to PPM Energy and Shell WindEnergy. Colorado Green is the nation's first wind energy project actually mandated by a state public utilities commission as the least-cost generation alternative. Consultants to the Colorado PUC estimate that the wind farm will produce power at 4.1 cents per kilowatt/hour, compared to 4.3 cents for coal and 4.8 cents for natural gas. In contrast to many areas where consumers and businesses must elect to pay a premium for electricity from renewables, Public Service Company of Colorado will include power from the wind turbines of Colorado Green in its normal energy mix. Cost competitiveness is obviously the key to the growth of any renewable energy technology, and wind power pricing is comparable to or cheaper than coal and gas generation in a growing number of regions - particularly in the current climate of natural gas pricing volatility. But there's also a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the U.S. wind power industry, albeit a familiar cloud. It's the biennial dance of the production tax credit (PTC), which will expire December 31 unless renewed by Congress (it was renewed in 1999 and 2001). The PTC provides a 1.8 cent per kilowatt/hour federal tax credit over the first 10 years of a project to utilities selling wind energy. A three-year extension of the PTC is included in both the House and Senate versions of the comprehensive energy bill currently being hammered out in committee as of this writing. But anything can happen in Congress, and AWEA's lobbyists aren't sleeping soundly just yet. At Clean Edge, we believe that the growth and success of any new technology (energy or otherwise) rests on three pillars: technological innovation, capital, and policy. Wind energy has the technology and potential capital investment to continue the industry's growth, lowering the costs of harnessing and delivering this critical renewable resource. But it needs the third pillar, in the form of government incentives, to thrive. In a world where the feds continue to reward the fossil fuel and nuclear industries with lavish subsidies and tax breaks, a three-year PTC extension seems the least Congress can do for the wind power industry. No matter what happens on Cape Cod. Clint Wilder is Clean Edge's contributing editor. E-mail him at wilder[at]cleanedge[dot]com..