As the temperate Southern California breeze rolls east past the San Jacinto Mountains and into the Coachella Valley, the blistering sun warms the air, drawing it to a higher altitude. The resulting vacuum creates a cycle of westerly winds that fuel an entire landscape of monolithic turbine towers and blades rising nearly 300 feet over a dusty maze of dirt roads.
Bruce Hammett, president of WECS Electric Supply Inc., Palm Springs, Calif., relies on this climatic phenomenon to fuel his business. Hammett founded WECS (Wind Energy Conversion Systems) in 1989 as a supplier of electrical components for the wind-energy industry. Today the company consists of Hammett and Bill Paris, both of whom have electrical engineering backgrounds.
Unfortunately, Palm Springs' predictable winds are not the most popular attraction to the area.
“This channel right here is known for its big blows, (but) the big tourist attraction in Palm Springs is golf. The chamber of commerce tries to keep us from mentioning wind.”
Although some might not be fond of these turbines or the wind that fuels them, the wind-power industry in southern California is hard to conceal, due to both its physical presence and its relatively significant impact. The thousands of wind turbines in California currently account for perhaps less than 2 percent of the state's energy production, but the state is still ahead of any other in wind-energy development.
“In 1984, there were probably 2,000 wind turbines put up in California,” Hammett said. “In the following five years, that evolved into somewhere in the range of 12,000 wind turbines through the benefit of tax shelters and new industry.”
That time and place was the setting for the beginnings of the wind-energy industry in America. At that time, the U.S. government began offering tax shelters for investment in wind energy. Although California is not particularly renowned for its wind in general, the state government had a progressive attitude toward alternative energy, Hammett explained.
“The federal tax shelters would have allowed development anywhere in the country, but because California also had tax shelters this became the obvious place. Plus, the mindset of the Californian is … new things, alternatives, clean air. A lot of investment in that kind of thinking also brought (wind power) to California.”
Hammett became involved in wind energy when his job at Westinghouse Electric led him to California on a project. “A customer/distributor asked me to help him with a design need for a computer on a wind turbine. That became, in 1983, an order with Westinghouse to build and deliver control panels to California for some 20 wind turbines,” Hammett said.
Ever since the tax incentives were created in California, other companies have moved in, making Palm Springs a good place for WECS to set up shop. Several European turbine manufacturers have sales and service offices in the area, as well as a number of developers. Being close to the developers is good for business because developers are responsible for finding the land to build on, measuring the wind, creating contracts with utilities, finding the money for the turbines and arranging construction — basically all of the leg work involved in turning wind into watts.
California may be a hub of U.S. wind-energy investment, but the international nature of the wind-energy business is where Hammett found the niche for his business.
Despite the federal government's continued investment in wind energy, much of the technology being used in projects around the world comes from Europe and Japan.
There is equipment out there that hasn't been manufactured since 1982, and today's the day it breaks.
— Bruce Hammett
“The development of product here in the United States was somewhat stymied by the fact that there were already existing European technologies that were, at the time, much more dependable than our own.”
Because of the frequent work with foreign-made turbines, the wind energy business requires a knowledge of the unique components and origins of those turbines. WECS must carry European-class fuses, circuit breakers, contact blocks, contactors, overloads, starters — anything that was built into the turbine to begin with.
“I'm working with contractors and people across the country because I understand European voltages and cable sizes and some of the unique features that are involved with getting things to look American,” said Hammett.
His knowledge of the various international languages of electricity has allowed WECS Electric to ship products worldwide. Additionally, the company has recently been working with projects in Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, New York, Minnesota, Alberta, Oregon and Washington, as well as overseas.
“We've done a couple of projects in Costa Rica; we've supported some development in South America, Europe and the far east, and shipped product that came out of Europe and was sent to Spain on a large project,” Hammett said.
The company generates between $1 million and $6 million dollars in sales per year, but selling electrical supplies to wind farms is not as simple as waiting for parts to wear out. Hammett generally has to wait years until the warranties run out before supplying parts to those accounts.
“They put out about 1,300 wind turbines two years ago, and those machines are now coming off warranty and are becoming an MRO issue. For the last two years, we've been positioning ourselves to be part of that loop with manufacturers that I service as a distributor.”
In the meantime, WECS also supplies cable and connectivity to new projects. To do that, Hammett builds relationships with contractors and developers all over the country. That part of the business, he said, takes experience.
“Because of my time in the business, (builders) will be told to contact me by the people who are developing,” Hammett said. “It's just being part of the business for a long time.”
Hammett said he used to supply some mechanical components for turbines in the early stages of the industry, but the complexity has moved him more toward connectivity. That includes some everyday supplies that many electrical distributors carry, such as cable, connectors, power transformers, circuit breakers and motor controls.
“We service and have designed systems for lighting the interior of a lot of (turbine towers),” Hammett said. “I buy all the stuff that a distributor needs to have on his inventory to service his customers, both from the MRO and from the construction side. Most distributors would have difficulty figuring out what to do with them, but they are very common products.”
Hammett and Paris often have to go beyond just sales, and frequently call upon their engineering training for special projects and customer service.
“There is equipment out there that hasn't been manufactured since 1982 or 1983 and today's the day it breaks. We come up with the alternative because we understand what they have, voltages like 690 three phase, frequency of 50 Hz and foreign electrical standards to convert. A lot of (the equipment) doesn't exist anymore,” Hammett said.
Bill Paris, an electrical engineer with WECS, noted another unusual customer-service circumstance. “A funny thing we get involved in is ‘plug and run.’ (Some customers want) really complicated things that we can hand to somebody so they can basically plug it in and it will run,” Paris said.
Despite the hassle of having to occasionally assemble things for customers, the guys at WECS said it's worth their time.
“If they have a special need and they're a great customer, then you do it,” Paris said.
With wind energy constantly evolving, WECS' business is constantly changing. Wind turbines have been growing taller and taller in the past two decades. But, more importantly, they've been growing in efficiency as well. So the same tracts of land are constantly under new construction, being updated with more efficient turbines. Known as repowering, this practice generates as much new business for WECS as it does electricity.
“We took out 100 40kw turbines and in place of them put up seven (600kw turbines). The combined efficiency of the seven turbines is probably 130 or 135 percent of what the 100 turbines used to put out,” Hammett said. “That's repowering.”
WECS has much repowering and new construction to look forward to in the future — due in no small part to the nationwide desire to conserve and find new sources of energy.
Several states have passed legislation mandating that wind energy be developed into a viable, energy-producer in the state. More progressive states have resolved to supply a certain percentage of their power through wind energy. New York's Governor George Pataki has required the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority to purchase 10 percent of its power from renewable resources by 2010, and 20 percent by 2020.
Although government and utility investment in wind-power production will ultimately be good for WECS, Hammett believes a large portion of his future business will come from smaller producers. “A lot of investment in the future is going to be individual wind turbines at factories and schools and waste water treatment plants. It may only be one or two turbines (each),” Hammett said.
WECS typically doesn't get much business from smaller residential-based turbine owners because those people tend to go back to the manufacturer for parts. But WECS is currently negotiating with several individuals and small user groups to capitalize on a California Energy Commission initiative, which pays up to 50 percent of the cost of any wind or solar system for small users if their system is connected to the power grid.
Despite much of the criticism directed at the Bush administration for its alleged neglect of alternative energy, Hammett sees a bright future for his industry and accepts Bush's reasoning for cuts in the Department of Energy wind and solar programs.
“(Bush's budget) places a requirement on the industry to end its federal dependency stage and become fully self-reliant for development. Good U.S.-designed utility machines just do not exist despite the huge federal outlays over the years, and the need for speedy development is not going to be met by funding this arm of the government by higher degrees, given that government programs are aimed at scientists, not the realities of performance on a commercial scale.”
Hammett conceded that the Department of Energy had funded some successful design initiatives in the past but said that Europe was way ahead in the newer technologies.
Even Hammett agrees that wind power is not the magical solution for the whole country's energy crunch. However, when you're living in a world that needs diverse sources of energy, breathing the air in a country that burns coal or worse for electricity, and yet you're sitting in an office with 45 mph winds blowing outside, there are far worse ideas.