Wind whips through the California mountain passes, sweeps through the Iowa farmland and races across the west Texas oil fields to generate an alternative energy source that is getting more affordable than natural gas, according to the American Wind Energy Association, Washington, D.C.
Large-scale wind farms are popping up from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest. With the cost of electricity rising and Americans searching for cleaner power, utilities are hiring electrical contractors to install the electrical infrastructure for wind farms nationwide.
“The wind business is very good right at this time,” said Don Hardee, project manager for Portland, Ore.-based Christenson Electric, which has specialized in wind energy since 1996. “It's going to be at the forefront of power generation over the next 10 years because it's a renewable resource. There's no need to dam rivers, there's no acid rain from the coal-fire generating plants and you don't have to deal with the plutonium from the nuclear plants.”
The U.S. Department of Energy is helping to stimulate the growth of the wind market through its Wind Powering America initiative, which hopes to power at least 5 percent of the nation's electricity with wind by 2020 and increase federal use of wind energy to 5 percent by 2010.
This article highlights four areas where wind power is a solid market: Oregon, Texas, Iowa and California.
Land of the Wind-Farm Giant
Windmills will soon blanket the Pacific Northwest.
Christenson Electric Inc., Portland, Ore., is working on one of the largest wind farms in the world — the 35-square-mile State Line Wind Project on the Washington-Oregon border. A specialized team of high-voltage electricians is currently building the infrastructure for 454 168-foot wind turbines.
The contractor is working as part of a team with the owner, FPL Energy, and other general contractors, along with iron and concrete workers and engineers to complete the gargantuan project.
“Not just one contractor can build a wind farm of this magnitude,” Hardee said. “If you are building a smaller farm of 10MW, it would be no problem for one contractor to do it all. When you are building a site of 454 turbines, there are more than 30 miles of trench to dig and power cable to lay. There are roads to build and maintain and towers and turbines to be manufactured, hauled and erected at the job site. There are many trades involved in the construction.”
Christenson had as many as 110 tradesmen on the project, which spans across Washington and Oregon. Because wind-farm construction is similar to other traditional high-voltage work, Christenson's employees already had the special skills and programs in place.
“There has been an on-the-job learning process,” said Hardee, who has 26 years of experience in power line construction. “Primarily, the same applications involved in other types of electrical construction are involved in the wind-energy business.”
Founded 38 years ago, Christenson Electric prides itself on being on the cutting edge of power conservation and energy applications. The 1,000-employee firm has been in the wind-energy business for the last four-and-a-half years. Hardee said wind energy technology has been used for more than 20 years, but it has just recently been recognized as a very important power alternative.
“Great strides have been made in new technologies and materials, making wind energy very competitive,” Hardee said. “I think you are going to see more projects both large and small.”
Wind farms come in many sizes, ranging from nearly 500 turbines to as small as one turbine. They are often built in remote and windy areas close to existing transmission lines, he said.
“The wind farms can be built in places that are desolate and dusty,” he said. “It's not an easy task to build them in some of the places that they choose.”
Because of the harsh conditions, it often takes extra time to complete duties such as cable terminations.
“The most important thing to remember while terminating high-voltage splices is you must keep it very clean, which is hard to do in a dusty environment,” Hardee said.
Christenson Electric takes special safety precautions when working on the wind farms.
“Safety is a paramount issue for us at Christenson Electric,” he said. “We have a very knowledgeable safety crew. We have put a rappelling retrieval plan in place for the rescue of a hurt man from the towers. We have worked hand-in-hand with FPL Energy's safety department and have a full-time safety person on site.”
Hardee said Christenson's responsibility is to wire and light the tower. The contractor is also responsible for the collection system, which involves setting up the step-up transformers, stringing cable between each of the transformers, building the substation and intertying them to the transmission systems.
“We are a full-service electrical contractor, so not only can we do the high-voltage end of it, which is the collection and substation, but we also have industrial electricians and telecommunication workers who do the low-voltage and communications portions of the wind farm,” he said. “We offer one-stop shopping. We can do it all.”
Christenson is committed to wind energy and is planning on being very involved far into the future, he said.
“With Oregon's transmission infrastructure, wind will continue to be very big,” Hardee said. “The partnership of the developed hydropower in the region and wind energy is a natural thing, and will be able to carry the new green energy to far reaches.”
The Pacific Northwest's hydro dams have created inexpensive power for many years but have affected Oregon's rivers and fisheries. Wind energy is the cleaner solution, he said.
“It is very important for us to protect our environment for future generations and this is just one thing that we can do,” Hardee said. “Moving back to more basic elements, such as wind and solar power, makes such good sense. Wind is a clean, renewable resource.”
Green Power for the Oil State
West Texans welcome wind farms with open arms because of its clean and green power, said Jim Milson, president of Sun Electric, Odessa, Texas.
“We're so used to messed-up water tables, smelly oil wells and greasy, nasty stuff in the oil fields of west Texas,” Milson said. “Wind is clean and nondepletable. All we have had to depend on for decades is oil.”
Sun Electric, a transmission-line contractor, has helped build wind farms since 1999, but installed its first wind turbines in 1984 during a pilot project in Surfside, Texas. In the process, Sun Electric also did research in Palm Springs, Calif., where wind energy was taking off.
“I developed an interest in it and pretty much watched and waited,” he said. “I knew that Texas was going to get the wind farms someday. I then jumped on board when we found that they were coming this way.”
The market is now excellent in Texas, Milson said.
“We have a good grid here,” he said. “The transmission line grid is not overloaded, contrary to what's happening in California. We have plenty of remote areas in west Texas, especially where you have transmission lines that are close to areas that are very prone to wind.”
Retail power deregulation, which began Jan. 1 in Texas, will help create even more transmission lines. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has laid out plans for more than 300 new transmission projects. The state government has also fostered growth in the wind market, Milson said.
“The state of Texas mandated a percentage of power that would be produced using green methods by 2009 and some really nice tax credits that go along with it,” he said.
Texas now has about nine or 10 wind farms and is planning on putting three more online in the next six months. The power that is generated from the wind farms flows back into the grid. Consumers then have the option to buy the clean power.
“It gives them an alternative,” Milson said. “The power is no cheaper, but they get a questionnaire with their power bills asking if they would like to opt for green power. Once they tally how many users want to do that, the utility strikes a deal somewhere to buy so much of it.”
Sun Electric is now wrapping up several projects and is scheduled to start construction on some new wind farms in December, Milson said.
“The developers all want them at the same time,” he said. “We have the big wind farms that go anywhere from 40MW up to 280MW. We work all over Texas — anywhere there are wind farms.”
Wind farms can take anywhere from three to five months to complete, depending on the scope of the project. Projects also vary with regards to manpower, he said.
“A single project can take from 15 to 40 people for our portion of the project,” he said.
Sun Electric starts working on the project from the ground level, he said. “The windmill is being installed while we're working,” Milson said. “It's a very scheduling-intensive project with lots of liquidated damages for noncompletion or past-due completion.”
Wind-farm work not only requires a lot of heavy scheduling, but also demands a lot of cash and bondability, he said.
“Electrical contractors have to be very financially sound because the developers like a single-source contractor,” Milson said. “You have to be bondable to about $5 million, and that pretty much says it all. Otherwise, the wind market is surprisingly basic. You're just working with large trenchers and transmission lines.”
Contractors also have to be ready to deal with a tremendous amount of legal work, Milson said.
“Wind rights are a new thing,” Milson said. “Landowners, especially in West Texas, are used to people approaching them about coming and building on their land. But because of all the times that they got sheistered, they are very sensitive to anybody else coming in and trying to develop any kind of energy on their land without getting a piece of it.”
Building a wind farm can be more involved than putting in an oil well, he said.
“There's a lot of money in it — not a lot of profit, but a lot of dollars spent,” Milson said. “You can look at about $1.2 million per MW of power, which is very expensive. If it weren't for those tax credits, it wouldn't be cost effective.”
The real reason for the wind farms is tax credits, he said.
“It's a super tax incentive,” Milson said. “It's a politically correct thing to do right now and probably will be for a long time.”
Wind gem of the Midwest
Iowa not only has fields of corn but also has a new crop — wind.
“We're now the third largest producer in the United States,” said Bill Haman, industrial program director for the Iowa Energy Center. “We only trail California and Minnesota and have one of the largest wind farms in the world in northwest Iowa. It's got 256 turbines.”
Iowa became one of the leading states in the wind energy business in the 1980s.
“The big wind farms were primarily constructed because Iowa had a law on the books from 1983 that said that investor-owned utilities needed to have 2% of their power generation from renewables,” Haman said. “From 1983 to 1998, it was contested in courts, and the state law did stand.”
Two out-of-state utilities, Enron and Florida Power and Light, built Iowa's first two wind farms to sell power to the two investor-owned utilities. The Alta-Storm Lake Wind Farm has 256 turbines, 750kW each mounted at 200 ft, to serve about 30,000 homes. The Clear Lake Wind Farm has 58 turbines, 750 kW mounted at 160 ft. Construction is now underway for a third wind farm in north central Iowa.
“It's going to have 89 turbines,” Haman said. “Eighty-eight of them will be 900kW units. They're also going to try to build one 1.5MW turbine. The first four turbines are already ordered, and I think they've already started doing the foundation work.”
Alliant Energy, an investor-owned utility that serves more than a million customers in the United States and a million customers internationally, is serving as the electrical contractor for the Top of Iowa Wind Farm Project. The team has several divisions that can work together to provide a full-service solution to its customers.
“We design, engineer and construct wind farms across the Midwest,” said Tom Duffy of the wholesale service division of Alliant Energy, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “We have a project management team and a design and engineering team. We use our labor source — our linemen and substation technicians — to do the actual work. Together, we can build a wind farm.”
Alliant Energy's service territory spans Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois. The wind business is growing throughout the Midwest, Duffy said.
“We are being asked by a host of different developers to assist them in the electrical construction of the substation and the collection system for wind farms,” he said. “We're committed to providing safe, reliable energy to the Midwest, and we see wind energy as a credible source of energy. We also are dedicated to doing the construction on the wind projects across the Midwest as it relates to the electrical system and substation.”
Alliant Energy also provides materials and construction for commercial customers and municipalities and other utilities for electrical and gas projects.
“We'll build substations, overhead and underground distribution systems and transmission systems across the Midwest,” he said. “As of late, we've been heavily engaged in the construction of the wind-farm industry. That is another way that we are becoming a full-service electrical contractor and not just an energy provider.”
Along with the wind farms, some private homes and farms are also installing wind turbines in Iowa. Haman said he has noticed some popping up around the area.
“There's two or three dozen wind turbines around,” he said. “I was driving through the countryside yesterday and I spotted one that I didn't know existed.”
To encourage more homeowners and businesses to install wind turbines, the Iowa Energy Center offers a zero interest loan program, which is the only incentive program available in Iowa for renewable energy.
“It's a revolving loan program so that as money is repaid from the loan, money is freed up to offer new loans,” Haman said. “We offer 0% money for up to half of the cost of the financed portion of the project up to a maximum of $250,000 and a term not to exceed 20 years. The other half of the financial cost comes from the banker of the applicant's choice.”
In addition to its loan program, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources also offers low-interest financing to schools, such as the Spirit Lake Elementary School. A giant wind turbine has towered above the elementary school's playground since 1993. The energy generated by the wind turbine is estimated to save the school about $25,000 a year.
“Their first turbine produced about half their power,” he said. Now they're installing a second, larger turbine that will actually produce more power than they need right now. They use it as their primary power when the wind is blowing. When the wind is not blowing, they have the utility as a backup.”
Spirit Lake School is located close to the Iowa-Minnesota border, which is the best place for wind, he said.
“The good wind moves from the northwest part of the state,” Haman said. “As you move southeast, it becomes less because you're over by the Mississippi River. The problem with the northwest part of the state where there's a lot of wind, is there's not a lot of transmission lines.”
Other areas of Iowa that are in the central or southern part of the state may opt to use a hybrid system.
“A hybrid system is a more perfect solution for Iowa because during the summertime, we don't have a lot of wind, but we have a lot of sunshine,” Haman said. “During the spring and fall months, we have a lot of wind, but we have a lot more cloudy days. A hybrid system would match our weather patterns quite nicely.”
Solar hasn't taken off as much as wind in Iowa, however.
“Unfortunately, in this climate, solar is still a hard sell,” he said. “It's still not quite there economically. It's a little expensive. Wind turbines, on a kilowatt hour basis, are about half the price of solar.”
The prices of the wind turbines have also increased due to the high demand.
“We have noticed on the small systems that the wind turbine prices have gone up,” he said. “Since the spring, both California and Illinois have initiated 50% rebate programs. That put quite a demand on the small wind-turbine supplier and as a consequence, I've seen the price of those small turbines jump dramatically.”
Duffy of Alliant Energy said despite the cost of the wind turbines, the wind market would continue to grow.
“I feel that it's growing tremendously due to our need for generation in the Midwest and the emphasis on the renewable energy sector as it benefits the environment,” he said.
A wind gold mine
America's first large-scale wind farms were built during California's “wind rush” in the early 1980s. The Golden State paved the way for the development of the wind-farm industry with these wind turbines, which were densely packed into California's mountain passes.
A decade later, new wind-turbine technology emerged in the industry, and wind turbines became larger, more efficient and cost-effective. To keep California as an industry leader, companies began repowering the wind farms. Bruce Hammett, president of Palm Springs, Calif.-based WECS Electric, a wholesale electrical distributor, said six years ago, he supplied equipment such as medium- and low-voltage cable, circuit breakers, step-up transformers and substations to repower a wind farm with 100 40kW turbines.
“We tore down all 100 and put up six 700kW turbines in their place,” said Hammett, who was the subject of a July 2001 Electrical Wholesaling cover story. “The equivalent total power delivered to the grid was 4.2MW for both the old and new turbines, but because the new turbines had a higher efficiency, they were outproducing the old ones.”
Hammett has also worked with Jeff Sheets, president of JMS Electric, Lancaster Calif., to repower wind farms in Tehachapi and the San Gorgonio Pass. In 1998, they replaced 430 turbines with 130 turbines rated 600kW to 700kW.
Sheets, who has worked in the wind business since its infancy, said wind power was a relatively new energy source in the 1980s.
“No one knew anything about the business then,” Sheets said. “We just kind of invented it as we went along as far as different ways of installing the cables. I got on-the-job training with Zond, which is now Enron, back in the early days of wind power.”
Sheets now owns JMS Electric, which specializes exclusively in wind power projects. His team works with utilities and project developers to install the tower cabling and high-voltage underground systems. JMS also builds the substation for the wind farms. Sheets said he travels from coast to coast to install the systems.
“We do them all over the country,” he said. “We've worked from Hawaii to Maine.”
While projects nationwide are keeping JMS Electric busy, the deregulation has stumped the growth of the wind market in California, leading to the postponement or cancellation of many of his projects.
“The wind-power market has been really good over the years, but right now, California has problems with the utilities,” Sheets said. “PG&E went into bankruptcy and Southern California Edison was on the verge of it. There were some good-sized projects that were supposed to go last year, and they've been cancelled until they can get their problems worked out. Right now, California isn't doing much wind power, but there's plenty going on everywhere else.”
Hammett said many of the repowering projects have been put on hold.
“Utility grid problems are so bad that we can't get those developments to roll,” Hammett said. “There's no place to put the power.”
California's deregulation may have dampened prospects for large-scale wind farms, but it has sparked an increase in the small-turbine market. The state is offering attractive rebates and incentives, which may help drive the residential and commercial industry. California has enacted a state bill giving consumers a state tax credit of up to 50% and is considering offering a 30% installation credit. The tax credits will help drum up more business in California, said Bill Haman of the Iowa Energy Center.
“California has been the leader primarily because they got into it so long ago,” he said. “Now with their tremendous rebate program, the small turbines will probably be popping up like no other.”
Ups and Downs of Wind Energy
- Inexhaustible fuel source
- No pollution
- Often an excellent supplement to other renewable sources
- Very diffuse source means low energy production — large numbers of wind generators (and thus large land areas) are required to produce useful amounts of heat or electricity
- Only areas of the world with lots of wind are suitable for wind power generation
- Relatively expensive to maintain
Source: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
The Basics of Wind Energy
What is wind energy?
The terms “wind energy” or “wind power” describe the process by which the wind is used to generate mechanical power or electricity. Wind turbines convert the kinetic energy in the wind into mechanical power. This mechanical power can be used for specific tasks (such as grinding grain or pumping water) or a generator can convert this mechanical power into electricity to power homes, businesses and schools.
How is the energy in the wind captured?
Wind turbines, like aircraft propeller blades, turn in the moving air and power an electric generator, which supplies an electric current. Modern wind turbines fall into two basic groups: the horizontal-axis variety, like the traditional farm windmills used for pumping water; and the vertical-axis design. Wind turbines are often grouped together into a single wind power plant, also known as a wind farm, and generate bulk electrical power. Electricity from these turbines is fed into the local utility grid and distributed to customers just as it is with conventional power plants.
What are wind turbines made of?
All electric-generating wind turbines are comprised of a few basic components: the rotor (the part that actually rotates in the wind), the electrical generator, a speed control system, and a tower. Some wind machines have fail-safe shutdown systems so that if part of the machine fails, the shutdown systems turn the blades out of the wind.
How big are wind turbines?
Wind turbines are available in a variety of sizes, and therefore power ratings. The largest machine, such as one built in Hawaii, has propellers that span more than the length of a football field, stands 20 stories high and produces enough electricity to power 1,400 homes. A small home-sized wind machine has rotors between 8 ft and 25 ft in diameter, stands upwards of 30 ft and can supply the power needs of an all-electric home or small business.
Is the cost of wind power competitive with conventional power plants?
New, utility-scale, wind projects are being built all around the United States today with energy costs ranging from 3.9 cents per KWh (at very windy sites in Texas) to 5 cents or more (in the Pacific Northwest). These costs are competitive with the direct operating costs of many conventional forms of electricity generation now — and prices are expected to drop even further over the next 10 years.
What is the state of the wind industry today?
The wind-energy industry has grown steadily over the last 10 years, and American companies are now competing aggressively in energy markets across the nation and around the world.
What is the future of wind power?
Wind power has an expansive future according to experts. Wind energy was the fastest-growing source of electricity generation in the 1990s.
Source: U.S. Department of Energy's Wind-Energy Program
Wind Turbine Glossary
Electrical contractors and distributors who decide to break into the wind business may need to learn some new lingo. The U.S. Department of Energy defined the following terms as part of its educational Web page on wind energy.
Anemometer. Measures the wind speed and transmits wind-speed data to the controller.
Blades. Most turbines have either two or three blades. Wind blowing over the blades causes the blades to lift and rotate.
Brake. A disc brake which can be applied mechanically, electrically or hydraulically to stop the rotor in emergencies.
Controller. The controller starts up the machine at wind speeds of about 8 to 16 mph and shuts off the machine at about 65 mph. Turbines cannot operate at wind speeds above about 65 mph because their generators could overheat.
Gear box. Gears connect the low-speed shaft to the high-speed shaft and increase the rotational speeds from about 30 to 60 rotations per minute (rpm) to about 1,200 to 1,500 rpm, the rotational speed required by most generators to produce electricity. The gear box is a costly (and heavy) part of the wind turbine. Engineers are exploring “direct-drive” generators that operate at lower rotational speeds and don't need gear boxes.
Generator. Usually an off-the-shelf induction generator that produces 60-cycle AC electricity.
High-speed shaft. Drives the generator.
Low-speed shaft. The rotor turns the low-speed shaft at about 30 to 60 rotations per minute.
Nacelle. The rotor attaches to the nacelle, which sits atop the tower and includes the gear box, low- and high-speed shafts, generator, controller and brake. A cover protects the components inside the nacelle. Some nacelles are large enough for a technician to stand inside while working.
Pitch. Blades are turned, or pitched, out of the wind to keep the rotor from turning in winds that are too high or too low to produce electricity.
Rotor. The blades and the hub together are called the rotor.
Tower. Towers are made from tubular steel or steel lattice. Because wind speed increases with height, taller towers enable turbines to capture more energy and generate more electricity.
Wind direction. An “upwind” turbine operates facing into the wind. Other turbines are designed to run “downwind,” facing away from the wind.
Wind vane. Measures wind direction and communicates with the yaw drive to orient the turbine properly with respect to the wind.
Yaw drive. Upwind turbines face into the wind; the yaw drive is used to keep the rotor facing into the wind as the wind direction changes. Downwind turbines don't require a yaw drive, the wind blows the rotor downwind.
Yaw motor. Powers the yaw drive.
Source: U.S. Department of Energy's Wind-Energy Program