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Archive for the ‘wind power’ Category

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

More good news on the renewable energy front Monday: The cost of onshore wind power has dropped to record lows, and in some regions is competitive with electricity generated by coal-fired plants, according to a survey by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a market research firm.

“The latest edition of our Wind Turbine Price Index shows wind continuing to become a competitive source of large-scale power,” Michael Liebreich, Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s chief executive, said in a statement.

“For the past few years, wind turbine costs went up due to rising demand around the world and the increasing price of steel,” he added. “Behind the scenes, wind manufacturers were reducing their costs, and now we are seeing just how cheap wind energy can be when overcapacity in the supply chain works its way through to developers.”

Driving the trend are falling prices for wind turbines, which have dropped to their lowest level since 2005, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Bloomberg said it based its analysis on a review of wind turbine contracts provided by 28 turbine buyers in 28 markets across the world. Those contacts represent nearly 7,000 megawatts’ worth of turbines.

Of course, that’s not necessarily good news for turbine manufacturers in the short term. But it makes wind energy more competitive over the long run. Over the past year the industry in the United States, for instance, has seen the wind taken out of its sails as demand has fallen due to the economy and natural gas prices have plummeted.

According to Bloomberg, contracts signed in late 2010 for turbines to be delivered in the first half of this year this year fell 7 percent from 2009 to an average of $1.33 million a megawatt. That’s a 19 percent decline since 2007.

In some regions of Brazil, Mexico, Sweden, and the United States, the cost of electricity generated by wind farms is on par with coal-fired power, the report said. In those areas, the cost of wind-generated electricity is $68 per megawatt-hour compared to $67 a megawatt-hour for coal power and $56 per megawatt-hour for natural gas.

Meanwhile on Monday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that the federal government would grant $50.5 million over five years to spur offshore wind farm developments on the East Coast.

The money will go toward developing offshore wind technology and removing market barrier to building coastal wind farms.

 

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I wrote this story for Reuters, where it first appeared on November 26, 2010.

In an effort that could help avoid conflicts between wind energy developers and environmentalists, the United States Department of the Interior this week released a map that identifies breeding densities of the imperiled sage-grouse in 11 Western states.

The chicken-sized bird with a white breast and a plumage of brown, black and white feathers is dependent on a sage-brush habitat that also is favored by developers of wind farms in high-wind areas of the Western United States.

“This map and initiative will help advance our collaborative efforts with states and stakeholders to develop smart policy to enhance the sustainability of our sage-grouse populations,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement.  “The final map will give Interior a strong foundation to identify land uses that do not compromise areas that are so critical to the greater sage-grouse.”

Development of all kinds has taken a toll on the ground-dwelling sage-grouse and environmental groups petitioned the federal government to put the bird on the endangered species list. In March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that protection of the sage-grouse was warranted but that the bird would not be listed due to the need to protect other species first.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Installation of new wind power capacity in the United States is expected to decline 39 percent this year, according to a report released Thursday.

Now that would be a brutal blow for any industry battered by a vicious recession. But it’s particularly bad news for the American wind industry, which had defied the downturn by installing a record 10,000 megawatts of new capacity in 2009. New wind capacity had grown an average 39 percent annually over the previous five years and represented 39 percent of all new electrical generation that came online last year.

China, meanwhile, has become the world wind leader and is projected to install 14,000 megawatts of new capacity this year, a 25 percent spike from 2009, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a renewable power research and consulting firm.

“Approximately one in two wind turbines to go online in 2010 will be in China,” the Bloomberg report states. “The U.S. market continues to be challenged by fallout from the financial crisis, low power prices and an uncertain medium-to-long term policy environment.”

In other words, the inability of the United States to enact federal climate change legislation or a national renewable energy standard and its Lucy-Charlie-Brown-and-the-football approach to financial incentives for wind power — no, really I won’t yank those tax breaks away this time, come on kick the ball — has made investing in multibillion-dollar wind projects a gamble.

China, on the other hand, has poured billions into its domestic wind industry with the avowed goal of becoming a global leader in the industry. It’s largely because of Chinese demand that new worldwide capacity only declined an estimated 2 percent in 2010.

“The emergence of China as the world’s leading wind market in the last two years is driving a fundamental rebalancing of industrial focus,” William Young, Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s chief of wind industry research, said in a statement. “Chinese turbine manufacturers have muscled their way onto the top table.”

So is the U.S. just tilting at turbines?

In the U.S., plummeting natural gas prices may be just as a big a culprit as a dysfunctional political system. When natural gas-fired electricity is dirt cheap, utilities think twice about signing contracts to buy much more expensive wind power — especially if they’re located in a state without a strong mandate to purchase renewable energy.

On Wednesday, I happened to be talking to Stuart Hemphill, senior vice president of power procurement at utility Southern California Edison, about the impact of low natural gas prices on the competitiveness of renewable energy projects.

Hemphill noted that over the past couple of years, natural gas prices have plunged from $14 per million BTU to $2 per million BTU.

“Natural gas as fuel has become extraordinarily competitive,” he said, noting that the boom in shale gas production is contributing to the downward pressure on prices.

There was some good news in the Bloomberg New Energy Finance report: The industry should bounce back in 2011. The question, of course, is just where that bounce back will happen.

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Image: Google

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Google is officially in the green energy business. The search giant announced on Tuesday that its Google Energy subsidiary signed a 20-year power purchase agreement with NextEra Energy. Google will begin buying 114 megawatts of electricity from an Iowa wind farm on July 30.

Google, of course, cannot directly use the clean green energy generated by the wind farm; that power goes into the local grid. So Google Energy will sell the power on the regional spot market, where utilities and electricity retailers go to buy power when demand spikes and they have a shortfall. Google will use the revenue from spot market sales to buy renewable energy certificates (RECs) which will offset its greenhouse gas emissions.

Many companies buy RECs in an attempt to be carbon neutral, obtaining them from third-party brokers. But by purchasing RECs directly tied to the renewable energy it is also buying, Google is getting a bigger bang for its buck.

“By contracting to purchase so much energy for so long, we’re giving the developer of the wind farm financial certainty to build additional clean energy projects,” Urs Hoelzle, Google’s senior vice president for operations, wrote on a blog post Tuesday.

“The inability of renewable energy developers to obtain financing has been a significant inhibitor to the expansion of renewable energy,” he added. “We’ve been excited about this deal because taking 114 megawatts of wind power off the market for so long means producers have the incentive and means to build more renewable energy capacity for other customers.”

In a statement on its site, Google also noted that its motivations for signing long-term renewable energy contracts are not entirely altruistic.

“Through the long term purchase of renewable energy at a predetermined price, we’re partially protecting ourselves against future increases in power prices,” the company stated. “This is a case where buying green makes business sense.”

It remains to be seen how big a green power purchaser Google will become. (The company has also invested directly in a wind project built by NextEra Energy, the biggest American wind power producer.)

But Dan Reicher, Google.org director of climate change and energy programs, told me earlier this year that finding clean ways of powering Google’s massive data centers led in part to the establishment of Google Energy.

“This interest in procuring green electrons is part of what’s driven Google Energy,” he said.

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photo: Aurora Biofuels

As I write in The New York Times on Friday, it’s spring cleaning at three renewable energy firms as top executives depart SolarReserve, Clipper Windpower and Aurora Biofuels:

The past week has brought a spate of executive departures at renewable energy startups, with the president of SolarReserve, a power plant builder, and the chief executives of Clipper Windpower and Aurora Biofuels stepping down.

Terry Murphy, a rocket scientist who co-founded SolarReserve after a career at United Technologies’ Rocketdyne division, has started a new venture called Advanced Rocket Technologies in Commercial Applications, or ARTiCA. The firm will evaluate green technologies for entrepreneurs and investors, according to Mr. Murphy.

Mr. Murphy and SolarReserve both said the departure was voluntary. “With the company solidly executing on its business strategies, Mr. Murphy has transitioned to an external role in providing developmental expertise to other early stage clean energy companies,” wrote Debra Hotaling, a spokeswoman for SolarReserve, in an e-mail message.

When Mr. Murphy left Rocketdyne to start SolarReserve, the startup licensed Rocketdyne’s molten salt technology so that its solar power plants could store solar energy for use after the sun sets or on cloudy days.

“SolarReserve, in my opinion, is up and running on all four cylinders,” said Mr. Murphy.

“What I did at Rocketdyne and what I did at SolarReserve and what I’m looking at doing in the future is to sift through technologies to find those that can be commercialized.”

Mr. Murphy’s new firm will focus on technologies involving renewable energy, desalinization and sustainability, he said.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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In The New York Times on Monday, I write about IBM’s new smart grid lab in Beijing that will develop technology for the global market:

In another sign of China’s emergence as an epicenter of green technology, I.B.M. has opened a lab in Beijing to develop smart grid software for the global market.

“We’re developing solutions for around the world but we’re looking to China to see how the pieces integrate across the value chain,” said Brad Gammons, I.B.M.’s vice president for sales and distribution for the company’s Energy and Utilities division.

Mr. Gammons himself has relocated to Beijing, where he will continue to oversee worldwide sales for the unit.

“The company made a decision that China is a very, very important growth market and to put some executives here,” he said in a telephone interview from Beijing. He said I.B.M. expects the new Energy & Utilities Solutions Lab to drive $400 million in revenue over the next four years.

It is operating out of I.B.M.’s 5,000-person China Development Laboratory. The new lab is working with the State Grid Corporation of China on pilot projects to integrate wind and solar power with the grid, manage grid operations and increase the efficiency of nuclear power plants.

The Chinese government has budgeted $7.3 billion for smart grid-related energy projects this year, according to ZPryme Research & Consulting, a firm based in Austin, Tex.

Mr. Gammons said electric cars will be one focus of I.B.M.’s new lab.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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Could we really be as dependent on fossil fuels in 2034 as we are today? In The New York TImes on Friday, I write about a projection from energy consultants Black & Veatch that sees fossil fuels continuing to play a dominant role in the United States a quarter century from now:

A quarter century from now the United States’ reliance on fossil fuels will have declined only marginally, according to a projection from Black & Veatch, the engineering and energy consulting firm.

In 2034, a mix of coal, natural gas and other fossil fuels will supply 68 percent of the nation’s energy needs, compared to 76 percent today. The share of energy production from renewable sources, including solar and wind, in 2034 will rise to 13 percent from 5 percent. Nuclear power will supply only 2 percent more electricity than it does in 2010, the firm said.

Those numbers were part of a presentation that Black & Veatch made to utility executives and other clients in Sacramento this week and which Mark Griffith, a managing director at the company, shared with The Times.

“We’re not assuming that greenhouse gas legislation leads to a immediate shutdown of all coal plants, nor does it lead to going directly to natural gas or renewables,” said Mr. Griffith.

However, Mr. Griffith acknowledged that a number of factors remain in flux that could change those dynamics, including the final shape of a cap-and-trade system – if one is implemented – and whether the United States imposes a requirement that all states obtain a percentage of their electricity from renewable sources.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Clipper Windpower

Tech and defense industry conglomerate United Technologies has shown growing interest in alternative energy and this week it bought nearly half of California wind turbine maker Clipper Windpower. As I write Friday in The New York Times:

United Technologies, a global industrial heavyweight, will invest $270 million for a 49.5 percent stake in Clipper Windpower, a struggling California-based turbine maker.

The deal, announced this week, marks a change in the ownership structure for one of the few major American-owned turbine makers. (Another is General Electric.)

United Technologies, a Hartford-based parent company to businesses such as jet engine maker Pratt & Whitney and elevator maker Otis, has recently shown interest in alternative energy. For example, it has licensed its molten salt storage technology to solar power plant builder SolarReserve.

In a statement on Wednesday, United Technologies said that it “expects to work closely with Clipper Windpower to improve the company’s core technology, manufacturing, product quality, and supply management capabilities.”

The agreement, the company added, “allows U.T.C. to expand its power generation portfolio and enter the high-growth wind power segment.”

Clipper, which is listed on London’s A.I.M. stock exchange, began to look for investors earlier this year as the global recession took its toll and customers delayed turbine orders. Millions of dollars spent fixing defects in some older turbines further sapped Clipper’s cash flow. Its share price rose by close to 20 percent on Thursday, after the deal was announced.

Douglas Pertz, Clipper’s chief executive, said in an interview on Friday that he expects to see the market revive in the latter half of 2010. (On Thursday, G.E. announced a $1.4 billion deal to supply turbines to what would be the nation’s largest wind farm, in Oregon.)

United Technologies has agreed not to acquire additional shares of Clipper for two years following the close of the deal.

Mr. Pertz argued that there are similarities between General Electric and United Technologies — as well as a bit of history.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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I’ve written before about the coming collision between green energy projects and endangered wildlife. Now we have a federal court decision in a case involving an endangered bat and a West Virginia wind farm. As I write Thursday in The New York Times:

A federal judge’s ruling that stopped construction of a West Virginia wind farm to protect an endangered bat underscores the growing conflicts between green energy and imperiled wildlife.

But the case, thought to be the first of its kind involving a wind energy project, seems unlikely to derail other projects, as some wind energy advocates have feared, unless the operators ignore endangered species laws.

In the West Virginia dispute, a subsidiary of wind developer Invenergy called Beech Ridge Energy applied to build a 122-turbine project along an Appalachian ridgeline in Greenbrier County. The county is home to the Indiana bat, which the federal government listed as endangered in 1967.

“This is a case about bats, wind turbines, and two federal policies, one favoring the protection of endangered species, and the other encouraging development of renewable energy resources,” wrote Judge Roger W. Titus of the Federal District Court in Maryland in Tuesday’s ruling. “The two vital federal policies at issue in this case are not necessarily in conflict.”

That’s because under the Endangered Species Act, developers can apply for an “incidental take permit” that allows the inadvertent killing of protected wildlife if other measures are taken to protect the animals.

Invenergy told federal wildlife officials that surveys had not detected the Indiana bat at the West Virginia wind farm site. Although officials at the Fish and Wildlife Service had urged the company’s consultants to conduct more extensive surveys, a West Virginia state agency approved the project and construction of the wind turbines began.

The Animal Welfare Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit group, sued to stop construction. An initial assessment of the project had estimated that it would annually kill 6,746 bats of all kinds.

After listening to expert testimony from both sides, Judge Titus concluded that Invenergy’s consultants avoided undertaking surveys that would have shown the presence of Indiana bats at the project site.

“By a preponderance of the evidence, that, like death and taxes, there is a virtual certainty that Indiana bats will be harmed, wounded, or killed imminently by the Beech Ridge Project,” the judge wrote in his ruling. “This court has concluded that the only avenue available to defendants to resolve the self-imposed plight in which they now find themselves is to do belatedly that which they should have done long ago: apply for an I.T.P.” (I.T.P. refers to incidental take permit.)

You can read the rest of the story here.

photo: U.S. FIsh and Wildlife Service

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image002There are a growing number of “green” software applications for the iPhone. One of the newest is an app that turns the gadget into an anemometer to clock wind speeds for those considering installing a backyard turbine. As I write in The New York Times on Thursday:

Thinking of putting a wind turbine in your backyard? Mariah Power is introducing a program that will let you measure the wind speed around your house by pointing your iPhone toward the sky.

The application uses the phone’s microphone to capture wind noise. It filters out ambient sound and an algorithm converts the result into a decibel rating that corresponds to wind speed, according to Bill Westerman, a principal at Create with Context, a Silicon Valley digital design company that developed the app for Mariah.

“If you go out in your backyard and do a few measurements it gives you a pretty good idea of the wind speed and tells you what kinds of things you could power with a wind turbine,” said Mr. Westerman.

Mariah, based in Reno, Nev., makes the Windspire, 1.2-kilowatt residential turbine with horizontal blades that looks more like a piece of modern art than a conventional windmill.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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