Wind-Energy Bets at Risk as Subsidies End, Gas Price Drops
Vestas Wind Systems A/S, Siemens AG and Suzlon Energy Ltd. may end up with underused U.S. factories as cheap natural gas and a lack of federal support reduce wind turbine deliveries this year by as much as 50 percent.
Vestas, the world’s largest maker of wind turbines, is spending $1 billion to expand annual production capacity in Colorado to 3,000 megawatts and hire 2,000 workers to sell and build turbines. Siemens plans to open a parts factory in Kansas this year, and already manufactures blades in Iowa.
They’re betting that the U.S. will pass a law that requires utilities in every state to buy electricity from renewable resources. State support helped new wind farms match natural gas plant additions over the past two years even as gas prices sank 59 percent. Absent a federal mandate, wind turbine factories, touted as job creators by President Barack Obama, may sit idle.
“We see challenges ahead,” Martha Wyrsch, president of Vestas Americas, said in Dallas this week at the annual conference sponsored by the American Wind Energy Association, a Washington-based lobbying group. “Installations are down for this year.”
At stake are investments in factories that produce steel towers, fiberglass blades and turbines spread throughout the U.S. and employing more than 85,000 workers in the world’s largest market for wind energy.
Siemens, the third-biggest supplier to the U.S., said utilities are won’t sign long-term power purchase agreements, or PPAs, because of a decline in electricity demand and because natural gas plants appear to be a cheaper means of generating power, based on current prices for the fuel.
“We’ve taken a leap of faith,” Siemens Wind Power Chief Executive Officer Jens-Peter Saul said at the conference. “There’s a lack of PPA’s available in this market.”
U.S. developers installed wind turbines with a capacity of about 10,000 megawatts last year, bringing the total to 35,000 megawatts in operation, the largest concentration in the world, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
“New orders depend a lot on what goes on in Washington over the next 60 days,” Steve Dayney, chief executive officer of Repower Systems AG’s U.S. unit, said in an interview. Repower, which is 91 percent owned by India’s Suzlon, manufactures most of its large components for the U.S. market domestically, he said. “Right now, there’s a lot of uncertainty in the U.S.”
Wind farm developers including FPL Group Inc.’s NextEra Energy, the largest U.S. wind-power producer, and AES Corp., based in Arlington, Virginia, have slowed investments in domestic wind energy.
“Eighty percent of our development budget is outside the U.S.,” Hall said at the conference.
With the first annual decline in U.S. electricity demand in 50 years, and with natural gas prices down 25 percent this year to about $4.20 per million British thermal units, utilities and state regulators are reluctant to spend more for wind power.
“I don’t see any developers expanding their business plans under the status quo,” said Michael O’Sullivan, senior vice president of NextEra Energy. “If it’s a premium-priced product, customers don’t want to buy it. Our price is a little out of whack compared with other types of generation.”
Requiring utilities to get 25 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025 would add 274,000 jobs, said Steve Bolze, chief executive officer of General Electric Co.’s power unit, the largest U.S. wind turbine supplier.
“Along with these jobs comes less dependence on foreign oil and a better environment,” Bolze said in a speech at the conference. “Without a strong policy, U.S. wind energy investment will stall.”
GE supplied 2,633 megawatts to U.S. developers last year, or about 26 percent of the market, the company said Jan. 22. Without a renewable energy standard, the market could drop by 50 percent, said Ed Lowe, manager of renewable market development for General Electric Co.
“We’re talking about significant job losses,” Lowe said in a speech yesterday.
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