Navigant Research Blog

Cape Wind Project Faces New Hurdles

— January 26, 2015

The prospects for near-term offshore wind take-off in the United States dimmed at the end of 2014, as the two utilities that had agreed to buy the electricity output of the 468 MW Cape Wind offshore project terminated their contracts.  The deals collapsed because the developers of Cape Wind had failed to reach key contractual milestones for project financing and construction launch by December 31, 2014.  National Grid signed a conditional power purchase agreement (PPA) in 2010 for 50% of the project output, and utility NSTAR agreed to purchase an additional 27.5% of the project’s output in 2012.

Saying they do not regard the terminations as valid, Cape Wind officials claim that force majeure provisions in the contracts stipulate that the milestones should have been extended.  Once again, the embattled project is in a legal dispute – and this one with potentially show-stopping consequences.  No offshore wind project in the United States can proceed without the price certainty of a PPA.  The outcome of these contract disputes could deal a fatal blow to a project that has been under development for 14 years.

Not in My Ocean

Planning for Cape Wind has taken so long partly because it was the first to navigate the unchartered waters of offshore wind development in a country that has little offshore wind policy and, as yet, no steel in the water.  Vociferous and well-funded opposition to the project’s location off Nantucket Island – a popular vacation destination for the affluent and influential – plagued it from the beginning.  The developers have been fighting a two-front battle against the challenges of offshore wind and the legal hurdles put up by anti-wind activists, coastal homeowners, and conservative billionaires.

The unfortunate reality is that, while the United States has excellent offshore wind potential along the Eastern seaboard and growing need for diversified and clean electricity generation, U.S.  policies are ill-suited to support offshore wind.  The production tax credit (PTC) and investment tax credit (ITC) for renewable energy projects subsidize around 30% of the cost of building an offshore wind farm.  European countries like Germany, Denmark, and the United Kingdom provide similar levels of subsidy.  The major difference is that those incentives have been consistent and long-lived enough to support projects that are years in development.

Back and Forth

Unlike most developed countries, where tax law is permanent until changed through legislation or other decrees, many U.S. tax laws and incentives are increasingly enacted on a temporary basis.  This is partly because U.S. lawmakers count on industries like wind power to help finance their election campaigns.  As a result, tax favors are largely granted on a 1- or 2-year basis, resulting in boom and bust cycles (13 GW of wind installed in 2012 in the United States, for example, followed by 1 GW installed in 2013).  This also results in severe inefficiencies in manufacturing and human resources as factories lay off workers only to rehire again when incentives resume.

The onshore wind industry grudgingly copes with this back-and-forth because onshore wind can be built in 1- and 2-year cycles.  But offshore projects require much longer to develop and build.  Eventually, U.S. lawmakers may realize the benefits of offshore wind and provide suitable long-term incentives.  Unfortunately, that will likely come decades after more progressive countries in Europe – and now China – are far ahead in offshore wind.

 

Small Wind Leases Open Up New Markets

— December 8, 2014

With more than 5 MW of distributed solar PV being installed per day in the United States, third-party-owned (TPO) systems have catalyzed growth in residential and commercial market segments.  Until now, the wind industry has missed out on the immense opportunity offered by customized power purchase agreements and lease options for its customers.  As with TPO solar, wind leases enable customers to start saving money on their electric bills immediately, with little-to-no money down.  The system owner, meanwhile, takes advantage of the federal investment tax credit (ITC), depreciation, and other state incentives.

Based in Brooklyn, New York, United Wind is a developer of small wind projects and is currently offering lease options for 10 kW and 50 kW wind turbines.  The company has focused its efforts in New York, where the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA) wind incentive can mean up to $40,000 in credits on a 10 kW system, on top of the 30% ITC.  Other companies are also trying to provide financing options for their customers, either directly or through third-party sources, but uptake has been slow.

Slow Off the Mark

According to Navigant Research’s report, Global Distributed Generation Deployment Forecast, 225 MW of small and medium wind (<500 kW) are expected to be installed cumulatively in the United States between 2014 and 2023.  Overall, the small and medium wind market in the United States has been far surpassed by the solar PV market due to rapidly declining costs that small wind has not been able to match.  With state incentives, in regions with strong wind resources, small and medium wind can be more cost-effective than solar PV, but the industry has been on its heels for the past few years.  As key state incentives have expired, a number of companies have gone under.

At the same time, distributed solar PV companies secured hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, established national sales operations, and significantly reduced customer acquisition costs.  The wind lease option is intended to tip the scales back in favor of small wind in key market segments, such as agriculture, manufacturing, municipalities, universities, schools, and hospitals, in places where wind is abundant.

As with solar PV, wind leases will range from 15 to 20 years on average and include guaranteed performance (in kilowatt-hours generated) warranties that include maintenance and insurance – all wrapped into a single payment.  This puts a premium on site assessment, since customers that don’t see cost savings are a risk to default on their payments.

The small and medium wind market needs to prove it can succeed in markets without lucrative state incentives.  The lease model is a great opportunity to move in that direction, but will require significant investment.

 

Tailwinds Pick Up for U.S. Wind Market

— November 2, 2014

The U.S. wind market, in the third quarter of 2014, showed clear signs of recovery, with 1,254 MW installed, eclipsing the total of 1,084 MW installed all of last year.  The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) reports an additional 13,600 MW under construction across 105 projects.  In our March 2014 World Market Update, Navigant Research forecast that by year’s end, the 2014 total could reach 6,300 MW.  The last 3 months of the year typically see more capacity installed than in the previous 9 months combined because of the construction cycle peaking at the end of the year.

Some wind projects may to slide into 2015, though, given that there’s not a policy-driven deadline to commission projects by year’s end.  A number of factors have contributed to a slower construction cycle, despite over 12 GW of wind projects with announced construction for next March.  The supply chain in the U.S. wind market exhibits some unavoidable inefficiencies due to the stop-start nature of U.S. wind power policy.  Wind turbine manufacturers, along with their component suppliers for blades, towers, drivetrains, and other equipment, were forced to throttle back manufacturing capacity in 2013 due to the down market.  Re-hiring and training workers and ramping up capacity is not an overnight process in an industry that produces aerospace-grade products at industrial levels.

Delivery Delays

There are also signs of transportation bottlenecks for some of the largest components.  The majority of wind projects under construction use rotors around 100 meters in diameter and towers that are 90 meters or higher.  Transport companies that move this equipment have been reluctant to invest in new trailers designed for larger wind turbines, given that the equipment could sit idle if the U.S. market falls into another slump.  Railways have also been bottlenecked, partly due to the huge volume of crude oil being shipped around North America.

The turbines installed in 2014 so far have come largely from the Big Three vendors: GE, Vestas, and Siemens.  Most of these installations use GE’s 1.6/1.7 MW turbine.  More than 4,500 MW of the capacity under construction uses GE turbines, followed by 2,775 MW for Vestas, 1,792 for Siemens, and around 3,500 MW not yet reporting a turbine.  Notably, however, turbine vendors that have limited manufacturing presence in the United States continue to secure business, with over 800 MW under construction using turbines from Acciona, Gamesa, and Nordex combined.

Flexible Financing

Also notable is the return of the merchant, or hedged, wind plant.  Most wind projects under construction either have signed a long-term power purchase agreement (PPA) or are utility owned.  But a substantial amount of wind capacity is proceeding on a merchant basis, which is operating without a contract. Most of this is occurring in Texas.

A few years ago, following the financial crisis, it was nearly impossible to secure outside project financing for a wind plant that did not have a PPA.  That rigidity has softened as wind developers seeking higher potential returns are finding ways to move forward and secure project financing without a fixed PPA contract.  In many cases, hedge agreements that went out of style during the recession of 2008-2009 are back in use.  These financial tools allow a wind plant to take advantage of fluctuating electricity spot market prices.  Spot prices in Texas generally range from $45 per MWh to just over $60 per MWh.  Special merchant contracts provide a type of insurance that enables wind plants to be paid the fluctuating spot price while also being protected by a price floor and ceiling – thus reducing risk while not limiting wind power providers to a low fixed price, as is typically the case with a PPA.

Moving forward, all eyes will be looking to the end-of-year project commissioning to see how much the U.S. wind market has recovered from its 2013 doldrums.

 

Wind Energy Innovation: Hybrid Concrete and Steel Towers

— October 8, 2014

As the number of sites with high wind speeds for turbines becomes exhausted, there is a growing need to ensure that sites developed in the future make optimal use of the wind resources available.  Also, as wind turbines are deployed in remote, forested areas of Northern European countries, such as Sweden, Finland, and Germany, the larger wind shear and turbulence created by forested terrain favors larger towers that elevate the rotor.

This trend places greater emphasis on using towers with heights often in excess of 100 meters and capable of supporting the heavier top head mass of large, multi-megawatt turbines.  This is the motivation behind the new breed of hybrid steel and concrete towers, where the bulkiest concrete base section can be produced at a factory and shipped in more manageable sections or produced at the wind plant site.  Some specialized towers, available only recently, can reach as high as 150 meters.

By Land or Sea

A primary reason for the increasing demand for these hybrid towers is transport logistics.  With steel towers, erected tower height directly dictates the maximum diameter of the tower’s lowest base section because all wind towers gradually taper as they rise.  The typical tall tower height today for onshore turbines is 100 meters, and the base dimensions for these towers are typically not more than 4.3 meters in diameter.  Widths any larger are not only difficult and expensive to manufacture (because of the challenges of bending thick steel plate), but they also push the boundaries of the cranes and specialized transport vehicles needed to move them.  Likewise, these oversize loads are more limited as to the roads, intersections, bridges, underpasses, and wind plant sites they can travel through.

Hybrid and concrete towers can also offer a more cost-effective solution when the nearest steel tower facility is far from a given wind plant site, which would require prohibitively costly transport for steel sections.  Some wind turbine vendors that have experience working with steel, concrete, and hybrid towers will select their tower type based on these relative materials economics.  If a steel tower facility is in reasonable proximity to a planned wind plant, steel will be chosen.  But as the distance and transportation costs from a steel tower facility increases, shifting to a hybrid or all-concrete offering can be more cost-effective, since concrete facilities are more widespread.

New Form Factors

A number of European companies, including Max Bögl, Advanced Tower Systems, Ventur Droessler, Inneo Torres, and Consolis Hormifuste, are now offering hybrid and concrete towers.  Max Bögl appears to be the current market leader in Europe, with units installed with turbines from Senvion, Vestas, Nordex, Alstom, and Gamesa.  Wind turbine vendors Acciona and Enercon also produce concrete and/or concrete and steel hybrid towers for self-supply.

In more expansive markets, such as North America and China, greater land availability reduces the premium on maximum tower height.  But at least three companies offer concrete or hybrid towers: Postensa in Mexico and Fabcon and Tindall in the United States.  Tindall offers 40-meter concrete base sections that can be used in conjunction with another manufacturer’s steel towers. And the European vendors with a proven track record could expand to the United States and elsewhere globally.

Other approaches to tall towers, such as General Electric’s space frame lattice tower and Siemens’ bolted steel shell tower, offer different approaches to building tall towers and alleviating transport headaches.  These and hybrid concrete towers are likely to begin to be installed in the United States in the next few years as the market continues to mature.

 

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