Wind Power is Finally Generating Investment and Jobs in the US

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There has been a lot of hype about wind power and its potential to meet future energy needs and there is no doubt a lot of our tax payer dollars will be re-distributed by this administration to support the industry and encourage investment. The industry is in it’s infancy. In 2009, it generated just 1.5% of US electricity supply, amounting to some 25,000 mw of capacity (I say capacity because for some of the time of course these power plants are not producing anything) from some 35,000 turbines in 35 states according to the AWEA ” American Wind Energy Association. 2008 was however a record year for investment with over 27,000 mw invested worldwide during the year. Much of it in China and the US where 8,300 mw were added boosting the nation’s capacity by 50% over 2007. According to the AWEA about 85,000 people are employed in the industry and over 5,000 commercial-scale wind turbines were installed in 2008. Although 2009 may see a temporary drop back to about 3,000, the momentum is on for significant growth now that there is some confidence that subsidies will continue. 2008 installations required 15,000 tower sections, 2.4 million bolts and 27,000 miles of rebar in the turbine foundations. The industry saw an investment in wind turbine equipment in the U.S. of over $8.5 billion in 2008 — which translates into a $3 billion industry for steel or cast iron components. This is spurring investment in an industry otherwise focused on consolidation. New forging presses are being installed solely to meet the need for larger and larger ring rolled sections which are currently 10-12 tons but are predicted to rise to 18 tons as turbine sizes grow.

But size brings its own problems. Even the current scale frequently causes traffic problems as 145ft blades or major tower sections are transported from rail heads, ports or river docks to the isolated rural locations according to this NY Times article. On route they pass through towns and highways causing delays, damaging roads surfaces and adding considerably to the project costs. Estimates for the transportation costs of a wind power project are between 10 and 25% depending on the location and size. But one welcome development has been that although early projects were often supplied with components made in Europe or South America ” the likes of GE have sighted production facilities in Brazil rather than the continental US. New production facilities are being established closer to the point of installation bringing jobs, expertise and investment back to the US. As important as the employment is, the opportunity to supply raw materials such as for the steel and non ferrous metals is lost when equipment is manufactured overseas. As a German manufacturer Nordex sets up a US manufacturing base in Arkansas to produce 300 turbines a year another, Atlantic Wind and Solar is intending to set up an automotive style production line capable of producing one turbine per hour or over 2000 per year.

As a method of stimulating local jobs and consumption of domestically produced or at least supplied raw materials, wind power has a lot to commend it (whatever one may think about the logic of subsidizing one form of power production over another with tax payers’ dollars). Now if only those turbine magnets could be made domestically, but that’s another story.

–Stuart Burns

Comments (5)

  1. Hansen says:

    Lowering transportation costs and increase tower heights should be a major concern for the wind industry.

    Using data from thousands of meteorological stations, a Harvard team estimated the world wind power potential to be 40 times greater than total current power consumption. A previous study cited in the paper put that multiple at about 7 times.

    The growth in the forecasts can be attributed to the increasingly common use of very large turbines on taller towers that rise to almost 100 meters. Wind speeds are greater at higher elevations. Previous wind studies were based on the deployment of 50- to 80-meter turbines. As turbines start to get taller, we’ll see a lot more capitalization of the resource.

    We need a great deal of innovation to get this industry to the next level. Some of us are investing in engineering to get taller towers under larger machines and reduce transportation complications and cost.

  2. Ian Falconer says:

    I did a little exercise using some data that I found on the copper.org website. It showed copper requirements of just over 2 tonnes per MW of installed wind capacity, not including the substations or turbines/generators themselves. Nor did that include the HV power line to the grid. Add that in and the copper usage went up to over 3 tonnes per MW capacity installed.
    I think that the raw data was a little on the heavy side, and I’m trying to get access to some more, but it gives an order of magnitude for permanent installation costs in terms of copper for windfarms.
    The turbines/generators, overhead power lines and substations are relatively easy to upgrade and recycle, but buried power lines and earthing straps are not.

  3. You say that some of these power plants (towers) are not producing any electricity; do you have examples of this? I am under the impression that these towers are sited only at locations where the average wind speed and duration meets a minimum threshold to make the turbines profitable.

  4. stuart says:

    Roger, operating for enough of the time to be profitable – depending on how that is calculated – and operating all of the time are not the same. Even the windiest locations have periods of the day or indeed days when the wind is below the threshold and in those circumstances the turbine generates no power. As you well know wind power is not like tidal, the wind is not guaranteed to blow.

  5. stuart says:

    Peder and Ian have made some interesting points above and deserve a follow up article in the near future.

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