Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Wind Turbines--Get ready for a wild ride!

Am I the only one in the industry who thinks that the wind turbine business is shaping up to be a repeat of the gas turbine business in the 1990s? Actually, there is a Siemens executive who spoke at an industry conference last year and alluded to this situation. Beyond his allusion, I've heard or read precious little.

I am referring to the industry's earlier infatuation with the advanced F-class gas turbine technology. Despite warning signs and mounting evidence of serious operational and performance issues in the field, in the mid-1990s, the orders kept coming (worldwide) and by year 2000, we had a situation of irrational exuberance. Utilities and merchant generators were lining up, paying deposits, accepting escalating prices, and swallowing service agreements on supplier terms just to stay in the queue for hundreds of these machines. Ultimately, the segment collapsed with the post-Enron malaise, but it was pretty clear to intelligent industry observers that the situation had, relatively quickly, become untenable.

We have analogous factors at work in the wind turbine market. Once again, General Electric (GE) is driving the market, and forcing the other suppliers, once the technological leaders, to play catch up. Just like with gas turbines, wind turbine technology is being scaled up rapidly to reduce costs and improve the economics. Demand worldwide is substantially ahead of supply of turbines and components. Other parts of the supply chain, like building transmission to serve wind farms, are lagging behind as well. The industry will consolidate to three dominant suppliers (as it does for virtually all major components in the power industry). Finally, the reliability issues are just beginning to surface. These machines are deceptively simple. The blades are pushing the limits of structural engineering and transportation (therefore need to be field erected), and the power electronics packages supplied with these machines get ever more complicated because of the grid interface and the intermittent nature of the energy source.

The number one problems facing wind project developers today is turbine supply. Not permitting. Not subsidies. Not financing. New suppliers will jump in to fill the void.

At the same time, the one power generating option that best satisfies (notice I did not say completely) all stakeholders today is a wind farm. Ratepayers are happy because it is renewable. Utilities are happy because they can build something, and relatively quickly, and maintain control (unlike distributed energy at customer sites which can cause loss of utility load). Investors are happy because the production tax credits and long-term power purchase contracts offer a predictable financing model. Environmentalists are happy because there are no emissions. Landowners (typicaly farmers) are happy they get some revenue for their land. Regulators are happy because no seems particularly unhappy, and there are no fuel costs to worry about.

Like gas-fired power in the 1990s, all stakeholder interests seem to converge on wind power today. But that is pushing up demand, pressuring suppliers, and forcing technology deployment and rapid cost reductions. The only question is this: Is irrational exuberance a year away, two years, five years?

We called the F-technology bubble through a widely references industry report, entitled, "Banking on Advanced Gas Turbines: Prospects for a Financial Meltdown," issued in October 2000. I was the principal investigator for that report.

We think we're on to something similar with wind turbines. It may be early, but the same warning signs are appearing.

What do you think?

Is more nuclear power inevitable?

It is difficult to reconcile social, economic, energy, and economic issues, but I've been stating for more than five years that greater reliance on nuclear power is inevitable. I don't harbor any ill will towards other sources of energy and electricity. In fact, I am staunchly agnostic! I believe in conservation and at least containing, if not reducing, one's personal environmental footprint. I am a proponent of coal as much as I am a proponent of wind and renewables. I am a proponent of things that make sense, face reality, and move us forward.

I find it ironic, though, that we are becoming fixated on the lowest density energy sources at a time when global economic growth and energy supply and demand (driving prices to historical highs) suggest we should be relying on the highest density sources.

So I want to offer a scenario that you don't read or hear about in the media.

Here's my premise: If we are to satisfy economic growth and supply significant quantities of electricity at reasonable prices worldwide, and decelerate growth in carbon emissions, without adding undue investment or technological risk (infrastructure must be financed, after all), then we need to pursue a policy of nuclear power plant construction concurrent with a program to convert transportation systems from fossil fuels to electricity. I would add that the only place where additional governmental intervention is needed would be to accept and manage the liability of high level nuclear waste. Reprocessing of the fuel would go a long way towards minimizing the waste management issue.

Nuclear power and electric vehicles require little stretch in today's technological know-how. Both can be incrementally improved to reduce cost but neither requires breakthroughs.

The nuclear industry doesn't need subsidies (such as provided in the energy bill) to build new power stations or demonstrate advanced reactors. It does need regulatory certainty that decisions made today won't come back to haunt them later. The financial community needs a predictable financial model, unlike what occurred during the last nuclear construction program.

This scenario is the only plausible one if you want the most electricity generation for the lowest carbon generation in the fastest amount of time at a fair cost to consumers and society. There are other excellent options if you can accept more modest carbon reductions, higher priced electricity, mandated reductions in energy demand, and other factors.

Yes, there are tradeoffs. Big ones. We build new targets for terrorist attacks. We have to store and manage the wastes for thousands of years. But no option comes with a clean bill of health. Logically, it seems to me we're better off exploiting our highest density energy source (nuclear fuel) to supply our most valuable and flexible primary energy source (electricity).

I am not agreeing or disagreeing with the science of global climate change. I am accepting that the popular vote is already in. Most people seem to believe it is a problem demanding a solution. Truthfully, if you read between the lines, energy company executives have already "baked" carbon constraints into their short and long-range planning scenarios.

At some point, we may have to accept that both managing global climate change and the nuclear fuel and waste cycle require cooperative international efforts, the first to maintain a healthy planet, the second to prevent abuse and terrorism.

Do I think coal is out? Absolutely not. We can get so much more out of a ton of coal (electricity plus numerous other products) than we do today. It just has to be exploited and priced in such a way that the externalities (negative impact on society) or converted to "internalities" (beneficial impacts for society). I am a huge fan of mine-nouth coal facilities that generate electricity, recycle ash into construction products, produce fertilizer, convert sulfur emissions into gypsum, supply pipeline quality natural gas and/or other "refined" products, and recycles or sequesters carbon dioxide. When the full value of coal is extracted on the basis of industrial ecology, it makes tremendous sense.

Am I against renewables? Don't be foolish. How could a thinking person be against a fuel-free source of electricity? But these sources are low density, intermittent, and therefore involve costs that are also not being properly accounted for. Making the economics work on a mass scale will likely require technological breakthroughs.

What are your thoughts?

Friday, March 24, 2006

Out of the box blog

Welcome to Pearl Street Inc's blog covering technology deployment, regulatory issues, and investment ideas throughout the global electricity production and delivery value chain.