26 Sept 2018
Lack of Government Support Not Big Blow for US Wind-Power Industry
- Photo: From humble beginnings to high-tech ubiquity, the US wind-power sector is said to have come of age. (Shutterstock.com)
- Photo: SkySpecs’ drone inspection system.
- Photo: Intertek: Ready for regulatory compliance.
- Photo: The AWEA Windpower Expo 2018: Still breezy despite a redraft in White House strategy.
While the Trump administration is rolling back state backing for renewable energy, and cutting the restrictions on fossil fuels, many are confident the US wind-power sector has sufficient momentum to ensure its continued expansion.
As the renewable-energy sector matures, industry players are starting to place greater emphasis on maximising existing stock, rather than building new capacity. Minimising operating expenditure is seen as key, with many of the exhibitors at Chicago's AWEA Windpower Expo 2018 event focused on ways of cutting costs. Overall, though, the mood was positive, with few worried about the anti-green sentiment wafting in from Washington way.
Although a relatively new technology compared with fossil-fuel power, renewable energy is seen as an increasingly mature sector. According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), the organiser of the expo, total installed capacity in the US was almost 85,000MW as of the third quarter of 2017, providing approximately 8% of total US generating capacity.
While the rate of growth has been frantic, with wind-power capacity more than doubling in the US since 2011, the large number of installed turbines has forced something of a shift in emphasis for the sector, with operating expenditure now becoming increasingly important after years of intensive capital expenditure.
Many exhibitors at the Chicago event noted this change in priorities for the industry, including Per Christian Larsen, Senior Project Manager for Copenhagen-based asset data management company Keel. Outlining the shift in focus, he said: "In this industry, in the old days, it was only about capex; now it's opex. Everything has to last longer and be more sustainable, which is where we hope we can make a difference."
Maintaining that Keel identifies potential opex savings by analysing existing data, Larsen said: "It's about making use of historical data. We clean the data, structure it, then classify it according to the customers' need – it could be failure codes, it could be area codes. After that, we have a digital core in place and out of that we can do all the fancy stuff – the Big Data."
The analysis of wind-turbine data in search of savings and efficiency gains was a common theme at the event, with many exhibitors having bespoke solutions on offer, including Michigan-based SkySpecs, a specialist in drone inspections. Pointing out what differentiates his company from others in the same sector, SkySpecs' Chief Technology Officer Tom Brady said: "A lot of people now have a focus on drones, but what's different about us is that our system is completely automated. You put the drone in front of the wind turbine, press 'go' and everything just happens.
"Once all the required images are captured, we upload the data to our analytics software. We then help the owners decide what they are going to repair this year and what can wait until next year."
As a fully automated system, SkySpecs' drone inspection does away with the need for a trained pilot, while also offering a number of other advantages over alternative inspection systems. Highlighting the particular benefits, Brady said: "There are three things really. Safety is probably first and foremost – some of the alternatives to getting data of this quality involve somebody actually having to rappel down and that is a dangerous process. There's also the speed – and it is extremely fast. Then there is consistency – the fact that we can take the same pictures year after year after year, so we can help people understand how damage is vectoring over time."
Another turbine-inspection system attracting particular attention at the event was ROMEG, a laser measuring device developed by California's NerWind. Outlining its advantages, Executive Vice President Ron Grey said: "ROMEG allows you to easily identify any imbalance in your blades and then helps you bring them back into balance. It identifies the angle of each blade and how much they are out of alignment – and we can even do that without stopping the turbine."
Allowing the turbine to continue working, eliminating lost production time, is crucial to ROMEG's success. It achieves this by using lasers to measure blade angles, avoiding the need to install in situ sensors.
Explaining how this works in practice, Grey said: "There are two lasers – we shoot one below the root and one above the tip. After about 10 or 15 minutes, we can calculate which blade needs to be moved and by how much, while we are also able to analyse any mass imbalance."
Cutting lost production time and reducing maintenance costs was also the focus for Connecticut-based IM Corp, which was in Chicago to promote its remote power transmission cable inspection system. Highlighting how its system can save time and money when detecting faults, Bill Corrente, a Marketing Specialist with the company, said: "The guy who founded the business wrote some proprietary software that lets us run signals at very low voltage when assessing underground systems, allowing us to pinpoint exactly where faults lie. A lot of times you can't see the fault – it's underground. You take the cable out of the ground, you still can't see it. Then, you have send it off to the lab, cut off the outer insulation and, behold, you've found the defect.
"We can go in, assess the systems and save companies millions of dollars, as they don't have to rip out a mile-long cable. We can pinpoint a section, take out a sample of 25 feet on either side, take it into the lab and replace it – that's a lot cheaper than taking out 5,000 feet."
While many at the event had on offer ways to save money once a turbine is installed and operating, Double-K Towers, an aluminium tower specialist based in Chicago, prides itself on providing a pre-installation cost reduction. The company focuses on producing meteorological towers that can be installed on-site to measure wind speeds, allowing turbine placement to be optimised.
Extolling the advantages of the aluminium towers Double-K uses over the steel ones favoured by many of its competitors, Marcin Maj, a Project Manager with the company, said: "The biggest difference between our towers and steel towers is the weight. As they are so much lighter, we don't need a concrete foundation – we just need a base plate and buried anchors. This means that the installation of a 100-metre tower only takes about three days. It's a huge reduction in costs, clean-up expense and time."
The renewables sector, at least in its infancy, relied on favourable tax and incentives regimes in order to compete with more developed fossil fuel power generation. In the US, under the Trump administration, support for renewables is under threat, while the restrictions on fossil fuels are easing. Despite this, the mood at the event was broadly positive, with most industry players confident that wind power is here to stay – with or without government support.
Kevin Tieman, Western US Territory Manager for Mersen USA, a New Jersey-based specialist in the use of new materials in the electrical-power sector, was notably optimistic about the industry's future. Confident that even if there was a drop in new-build projects, his company's electrical ring gear components would still be in demand, he said: "As our product is a consumable, it's something there is a continued need for over the life of a wind turbine.
"While a longer-term negative impact might be possible, we are yet to see any sign of that. If and when we do see a slowdown in our OEM business, we plan to shift more to the aftermarket and maintenance side of our activities."
Even more upbeat was Benjamin Hatt, Business Development Manager for Energy Acuity, a Denver-based research company specialising in the power-generation sector. With his optimism stemming from his company's findings, he said: "The wind-power sector is only set to grow despite any changes from a regulatory or political standpoint. The market will continue to push along, not least because of the profits that are now being made. Overall, it's never been cheaper to develop solar and wind projects."
As well as waning central government support, another factor that is set to have a considerable impact on the US renewable-energy sector is the implementation of a more rigorous standards system, something that has been a long time coming. One company likely to be at forefront of ensuring the industry complies with any new specifications is Intertek, a London-headquartered inspection, product testing and certification business.
Taking an overview of this gradual shift to greater regulation, Joseph Spossey, Intertek's Global Wind Team Technical Manager, said: "The US has been developing standards for the past decade or so and they are finally starting to be widely adopted. There are also a couple of US standards development organisations that have developed standards that are very specific to the foibles of the North American market."
While much of Intertek's European and Asian business centres around mandatory equipment certification, in the US – where certification is yet to be obligatory – its focus is more on performance testing. Explaining this shift in emphasis, Spossey said: "In North America, we are a little bit behind in terms of that kind of mandatory certification requirement, so here it is more about testing to ensure that power performance guarantees are met."
AWEA Windpower Expo 2018 took place from 7-10 May at Chicago's McCormick Place Conference and Exhibition Complex.
James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, Chicago