Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Fresh Wind in the US

The post-election speculation is well underway, with predictable positions on one side arguing for a rapid implementation of the Obama energy plan, and on the other cautioning that not much can or should be done. FWIW, I've stated my opinion several times and, while no one can say with certainty what will happen, bets are already being made, and they suggest the start of a new boom.

BP is coming ashore in the US:

A spokesperson for BP told New Energy Finance: "We have decided to focus our investment on onshore wind assets in the US, where we have been extremely successful and have built up a portfolio that, if fully developed, could amount to as much as 15GW. We will not be pursuing opportunities in wind outside the US, and if we have ongoing ventures in other countries, we will review them." He stressed that the move did not represent a change in BP's level of investment in wind "at all".
Clearly not:
Clipper Windpower and BP are teaming up to build the 5,050-megawatt Titan wind farm, the world’s largest, in eastern South Dakota. Already under development, Titan will generate five times as much electricity as the state’s 780,000 residents currently use. This project includes building a transmission line along an abandoned rail line across Iowa, feeding electricity into Illinois and the country’s industrial heartland.
BP is not the only legacy energy company reallocating their wind energy attention. Shell pulled out of the London Array back in May, disappointing its partner E.ON. Said Paul Golby, UK CEO:
The current economics of the project are marginal at best - with rising steel prices, bottlenecks in turbine supply and competition from the rest of the world all moving against us.
At the time oil was at $120 a barrel and heading up. With oil now almost half that and trending down, all renewable energy projects, including wind, have come under pressure. Illiquid credit markets, a global recession and a lower cost of energy are combining to inhibit new energy project investment generally. Yet wind is clearly experiencing little more than a lull.

A BP spokesman, talking about the US said “It’s a big place and it’s got a lot of wind,” and BP found the existing regulatory frameworks in the U.S. "helpful" in boosting development through incentives. Shell does too:
Shell and BP are competing in the US to build the world’s largest wind farms. ‘Many are now recosting their plans and are attracted by other countries who are tempting them with tax breaks and a freedom to build what they want practically anywhere,’ said one analyst.
That seems a bit over the top given the growing opposition to wind farms in the US, but there's little doubt that public opinion is changing in ways that should make development of large scale wind projects easier to do. That the US environment is perceived as more favorable than the UK's is also odd considering that the Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind received only a one year extension, while UK's Crown Estate has pledged to pay for half the pre-construction cost of offshore wind. One big reason for companies abandoning the UK market is grid connection:
Some companies in Scotland have been told to join a 13-year queue and are being asked for deposits of millions of pounds before the grid will agree to connect them. Currently, 115 Scottish renewable schemes, totalling 9GW of mostly wind power, are waiting to plug into the grid before they can supply electricity. Some already have planning permission but have to wait many years to connect.
Creating a smart grid with more capacity between windy plains and energy-hungry cities appears to be a high priority for the incoming Obama administration. Wind companies will also welcome a longer-term PTC which will make the financial planning more certain.

The prospects for wind now appear increasingly bright despite lingering concerns over the global economy, as turbine manufacturers, wind developers and the public at large perceive ever more clearly which way the wind is blowing:
The market for wind is very strong, with more than £40bn invested worldwide last year, demand for turbines going through the roof as countries rush to meet climate change targets, and the very few manufacturers producing turbines now looking only for large orders. Emerging Energy Research, a leading research and advisory firm analysing clean energy markets, expects the international wind power industry to increase 500 per cent over 12 years.

Vestas, the world’s biggest turbine maker, now has a £6bn order book and its turbine prices have risen 74 per cent in the past three years. China plans 100GW of wind power by 2020, a ten-fold increase from today. Texas alone plans more wind power than is expected to be installed in Britain in the next 20 years. The net result is that prices are escalating and orders for equipment taking longer and longer.

‘Everyone wants wind power. If you ordered today you could possibly get a turbine in 2011. But you would have to be a serious order,’ said an Enercon spokesman. ‘It is a very good time for wind.’
The boom has begun. Will it become a bubble? Do we care? Perhaps it's normal. At least we will be solving some real problems (energy security and climate change) in a sustainable way, even if some of the economic benefits prove eventually to be more transitory. Caveat investor, after all.
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