Tuesday, May 14, 2013

WINDPOWER 2013 conference in Chicago: Stirrings of optimism

At last week's gathering of nearly 10,000 wind energy professionals for the WINDPOWER 2013 Conference & Exhibition in Chicago, there were signs of optimism, with most industry participants expecting a drop in new wind farm installations this year, but a solid recovery in 2014.
The outlook follows a very late extension (January 1) of the federal wind energy production tax credit (PTC), the wind industry's primary incentive. Congress allowed the incentive to expire December 31, 2012, before renewing it the next day. The impact? A record year in 2012, with wind installing 42 percent of new U.S. generating capacity as developers rushed to meet the deadline, but severe whiplash for wind turbine component suppliers, who saw a crash in lead orders for 2013. Now the industry is on the mend, with utilities again placing orders for new wind generation because of its ability to offer low-cost electricity at long-term fixed rates.

The U.S. wind industry's annual gathering featured: induction of new leadership for the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), a packed schedule of educational sessions and a dynamic exhibition with hundreds of booths covering a total area equal to 11 football fields.

Some highlights from WINDPOWER 2013:

- At the opening general session on Monday, incoming AWEA Board Chair Gabriel Alonso, of EDP Renewables, outlined his vision of a strategy for the industry to achieve the stability and sustainability it needs. First, he said, AWEA must be strengthened so it can better advocate, provide essential data for members’ success, develop standards, powerfully convey wind power’s compelling message, and do more for the industry. Second, the industry must strengthen its brand against competitors and unify its message in order for America to truly understand how wind power is good for the nation. Third, the industry must develop a long-term plan and strategy that includes clear near-term and mid-term action steps. Fourth, members of the industry must become united by tapping the power of AWEA, its regional partners, and other vehicles to speak for wind power with one voice.

Finally: “We need you,” Alonso said. The number of people speaking to their government representatives, whether in Washington, D.C., or in their communities, must grow manyfold, he said. If 100 people today are participating in trips to the nation’s capital to visit with their representatives, that number must become 1,000. “You are powerful,” said Alonso. “You have a message that matters.”

- Incoming AWEA CEO Tom Kiernan was officially introduced to his new industry, and his introduction proved more substantial than a simple hello. Previously president of the National Parks Conservation Association since 1998, and a senior official at the Environmental Protection Agency under President George H.W. Bush, he said his passion for wind energy is personal: “Wind power is clean, affordable, and homegrown. The country needs us to succeed. The natural world needs us to succeed. And frankly, my children and your children need us to succeed.”

- At another session Monday afternoon, high-level representatives of AWEA, the National Wildlife Federation, the American Wind Wildlife Institute, and the National Audubon Society joined Jose Zayas, director of the Wind and Water Power Technologies Office at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), to launch discussion of a new vision for the wind energy's future. Zayas said DOE’s new effort will succeed the “20 Percent by 2030” technical report produced by DOE in 2008, and will take into account changes in wind technology, energy markets, and competing forms of energy in the intervening years. "My job," Zayas said, "is to make sure wind energy is at the table and has a key part to play in the energy mix of the future." The process for developing the new strategy, he said, will be a collaborative one much like that employed in developing the 20 Percent report, in which environmental groups, utilities, energy experts and others will be brought together to look at the potential for wind energy in 2020, 2030, and 2050. He said DOE’s goal is to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Panelists underscored the urgency of addressing climate change with clean energy. Larry Schweiger, President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said 70 percent of the species on Earth are at stake. “We desperately need to move quickly,” he said, using the best available science to minimize impacts on wildlife.

- Another key session featured major corporate purchasers of wind and other renewable energy--Bloomberg, medical technology company BD, Motorola Mobility, Google, and Walmart--sharing their firsthand experiences. Lee Balin, Sustainability Manager for Bloomberg's Global Sustainability Group, reported that his company has saved $48 million since 2008, thanks to its renewable energy purchases and efficiency programs.  For Walmart, energy is its second greatest controllable expense, said Greg Pool, Senior Manager for Renewable Energy and Emissions. Saving on renewable energy, therefore, helps the company's bottom line as well as helping the company in its goal to be a good global citizen, and fostering clean air in communities where it operates—which in itself has economic benefits for the company, he noted. Walmart has set the bold goal of running on 100 percent renewable energy worldwide. Pool said the world's largest retailer is ready to discuss possible power contracts directly with wind project owners: "Walmart is open for business to do wind deals." He said the industry should look beyond utilities to diversify its customer base.

As the conference closed on Wednesday, attendees and exhibitors started wrapping up business and heading home—ready to capitalize on the business opportunity presented by the PTC extension in the near term, and help make the case for long-term policy stability in the future.

Tom Gray


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