Saturday, December 12, 2009

2.5 Megawatt Wind Turbines are More Important than Global Climate Conferences

While the press is focused on Copenhagen, bureaucrats, and possible carbon treaties, a far more important development for the future of cities is coming out of GE and UT/Clipper - 2.5 megawatt wind turbines.

No carbon deal can be achieved economically without a technology to deliver it, and if forced to depend on wave energy, solar, or fuel cells, there would be no realistic way to produce clean electricity in high volumes, regardless of what liberals or conservatives thought about the issue. But the shift from 1.5 MW wind turbines to 2.5 MW models will further improve the economics of deploying wind, and allow renewables to take additional market share in electricity generation.

GE has just deployed its first 2.5 MW turbines in France, and U.S. installations will begin next year. One of the first major domestic deployments will be the 845MW Caithness Energy project in Oregon, which will cost a total of $2 billion, with $1.4 billion going to the turbines. It will produce enough power to serve about a quarter million homes in Southern California, where So Cal Edison has already agreed to purchase the electricity created at the wind farm. The total capital cost of $2,367 per KW would have been harder to achieve with smaller 1.5 MW turbines, and is well under the $3,000 per KW (and rising) price tag typical for a new coal-fired plant.

While wind runs below its rated capacity more than coal does, it also has extremely low operating costs. The Caithness project will employ just 35 people post-installation, or about one worker for every 8,000 homes served. This also points to why the economic development benefits of wind are mostly for the landowners. Like data centers, wind farms are not going to bring anywhere near enough permanent jobs to anchor any sort of "smart city" econ development campaign.

Unlike semiconductors, wind has gotten cheaper by getting bigger, the rotors on GE 2.5 MW turbines have a diameter about 25% larger than the 1.5 MW models. But part of the ability to create larger onshore wind turbines without relying on 1,000 foot rotors has come from advancements in the power electronics on which these generators depend.

Minneapolis and Buffalo grew over 100 years ago not just because of transportation advantages, but because of the significant hydropower resources near both cities. Similarly, proximity to wind farms gives western and midwestern cities an edge they should be promoting.

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