When it comes to generating clean energy, change is in the air.
The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) estimates more than 7,500 megawatts (MW) of wind power was installed in 2008—up from more than 5,200 MW in 2007. And in 2007, wind power accounted for nearly 30 percent of all new electricity generating capacity added nationally—up from less than 1 percent in 2002.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) would like to see these numbers increase more dramatically during the next two decades. In a report issued last May, the DOE declared the United States could supply 20 percent of its electricity with wind power by 2030. (Currently, wind comprises about 1.5 percent of the domestic energy market.) To achieve this goal, the nation’s wind power capacity would have to total more than 300,000 MW.
The outcome would mean displacing 50 percent of natural gas consumption and 18 percent of coal consumption by electric utilities by 2030, according to the report. It also would mean more business for contractors—creating as many as 65,000 new construction jobs by 2021.
Like many issues critical to the construction industry, the future of wind depends heavily on the state of the credit markets, as well as support from the new Obama administration. President Obama already has called for 10 percent of the nation’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2012, and wants $150 billion to be spent on new clean energy during the next 10 years, according to www.change.gov.
Congressional action is equally crucial. In October 2008, Congress approved a short-term extension to the Production Tax Credit. Set to expire Dec. 31, the incentive provides 2.1 cents per kilowatt-hour for the production of electricity from utility-scale wind turbines. The AWEA seeks a minimum five-year extension of the tax credit to avoid market instability. To illustrate the risk, in the years following credit lapses in 1999, 2001 and 2003, a 73 percent to 93 percent drop in wind energy installations occurred.Chasing the Wind
If the tax credit and support from the government hold strong, competition may increase in the wind-related construction market. But getting started in this niche can be “brutal,” warns Rush Waite, vice president of the Wind Energy Group for Wanzek Construction, Inc., Fargo, N.D.
Wanzek would know. It started following the breeze about nine years ago, when the heavy industrial contractor saw a slowdown on the horizon. With its fleet of cranes and industrial expertise, wind seemed like a natural business development opportunity. Wanzek purchased its first specialized heavy crane in 2001, and now the wind sector comprises about 70 percent of the company’s work.
“We started in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, but we just outgrew that,” Waite says. “To become a major player, we knew we had to keep continuity with our crews and equipment.”
So, the firm ventured from the upper Midwest to Texas, and even as far west as Washington. These days, Wanzek is working on or planning projects in Texas, Iowa, Oklahoma, Montana, Wyoming and Illinois, and has installed nearly 2,000 MW of wind generation capacity.
“We expect to be as good as last year if not better,” Waite says. “Fortunately we picked the wind to chase and it happens to be pretty popular.”
Wanzek began feeling the effects of that popularity last year with a few new contractors entering the market. But a significant learning curve exists when it comes to building wind energy systems effectively and cost-efficiently, deterring some firms.
First, the developer determines the location—ensuring road accessibility and curvatures of the land can accommodate crane traffic and overweight, over-width turbine components. Then, the contractor takes on constructability, including soil boring at every turbine location to determine appropriate foundations; tying the electricity into the utility; and creating a collection system for each turbine that ties into the transformer.
First to be erected is the tower, followed by the cell and the blades. Assembly methods vary depending on the turbine, and only certain cranes can erect certain towers. Not to mention, turbines have become taller over the years—up from an average of 60 meters to 80 meters or 100 meters—and typically contain more than 8,000 component parts.
“Once you get it all done, the turbine manufacturer takes over and does commissioning; then they give the thumbs up and throw the switch,” Waite says. The whole process can last 18 months, but actual construction rarely exceeds six months.
“You take a $50 million wind farm and turn it over in six months compared to a two- to three-year water treatment plant,” Waite says. “It’s fast track. You’ve got to be organized and proactive.”Pressure to Perform
A slew of other challenges complicate the actual construction process. For one, wind is a terrible thing to have on a wind farm construction site.
“They put them in the windiest spots, so you have to plan for it,” Waite says. “Wind, rain, snow—the whole weather environment can set you back. You have to be prepared to work around the clock on some days.”Despite the remote locations of most wind farms, foul weather is no excuse for schedule setbacks. As Waite explains, before a contractor even gets the go-ahead on a project, the developer has arranged for a utility to buy the power. If the contractor doesn’t meet that date, the developer has to purchase power from the open market.
“You may run into problems, but the project end date never changes,” he says. “There are huge liquidated damages on milestone dates on these things.”
Knowing that constant pressure from ownership exists makes having a competent workforce crucial to success. Wanzek entered the wind market during the ethanol boom, which made it difficult to find and train ironworkers and millwrights. Plus, nobody had experience building wind farms. Now, there’s a larger, more experienced pool of craft professionals from which to draw, but competition for quality workers is fierce.
Because it’s challenging to find experienced workers locally, Wanzek relies on the trained core of its workforce (totaling more than 1,000) to travel to jobs across the country.
“It’s really fun to see the crew stay together and see safety and quality clicking,” Waite says. “If you don’t have a happy workforce, you don’t have a productive one.”
Productivity depends heavily on safety as well. In a construction sector in which work is performed at such heights that a dropped bolt could break someone’s arm—and in such remote locations that it could take emergency responders an hour to get from the project gate to the jobsite trailer—there’s no such thing as being overly prepared.
“You really have to be careful with wind turbines because it’s repetitious work,” Waite warns. “If employees don’t buy in, they get complacent. You have to continually hold safety meetings and job hazard analyses to keep safety constantly on their minds.”
On Top and Offshore
Though a majority of wind energy work involves large-scale installations and related transmission lines, other opportunities are creeping into the market.
Last summer, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg made headlines with a proposal to place wind turbines on top of iconic bridges and skyscrapers, as well as in the Hudson and East rivers.
And in Houston, a new mixed-use tower topped with 10 wind turbines will serve as a unique landmark for the city when it’s completed in 2010. The 871,000-square-foot Discovery Tower, located on a full city block adjacent to Houston’s new 12-acre Discovery Green park, will feature office, retail and restaurant space overlooking a landscaped plaza. The project team, led by the Houston office of Gilbane Building Company, will seek LEED Gold certification based on the rooftop wind turbines, as well as other sustainable features such as air filtration systems and water-efficient plumbing.
In addition to bringing wind installations into cities, many renewable energy advocates hope to put them out to sea. Five countries have successfully installed offshore wind turbines, though none exist yet in the United States. However, in the DOE’s vision of 20 percent wind-generated electricity by 2030, 50 gigawatts (GW) of the 305 GW of capacity needed would come from offshore installations.
Significant offshore projects are being explored off the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico. Last summer, Delaware approved legislation allowing Bluewater Wind LLC to move forward on a 60-turbine installation 11 miles east of Rehoboth Beach. The 450 MW project could generate the amount of electricity used by 110,000 Delaware households, according to Bluewater Wind.
In the fall, New Jersey selected Garden State Offshore Energy to build a $1 billion 345 MW offshore wind farm about 16 miles southeast of Atlantic City. If the necessary permits are obtained, the project could begin in 2010—creating as many as 500 new jobs. Also in 2010, Wind Energy Systems Technologies LLC plans to have an operational offshore wind farm in Galveston, Texas.
Though promising, offshore development presents many hurdles, including government policies/regulations and continually changing technologies.
Contractors may have a few years before they need their sea legs, but on land the winds of change should continue to blow.
Sources: U.S. Department of Energy, American Wind Energy Association, GE Energy Financial Services.
- 1 MW of wind capacity is enough to supply up to 300 average American homes.
- New U.S. wind capacity installed in 2007 generates enough electricity to power about 1.5 million homes.
- Wind systems typically cost about $1,000 per kilowatt of installed capacity.
- During the last two decades, the cost of electricity from utility-scale wind systems decreased more than 80 percent.
- The 10 states with the most wind power development to date are Texas, California, Minnesota, Iowa, Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Illinois, Oklahoma and New Mexico.
- If the transmission capacity existed, North Dakota theoretically could produce enough wind-generated power to meet more than a quarter of U.S. electricity demand.
- In 2007, for the third consecutive year, the United States led the world in wind power installations.
- The world’s winds could supply the equivalent of 5,800 quadrillion BTUs of energy each year—more than 15 times current world energy demand.
- The wind industry directly employs more than 2,000 people in the United States.
- New wind projects installed in 2007 created 17,000 construction-related jobs and at least 1,600 permanent jobs.
Manufacturing plays a significant supporting role in the expansion of the alternative energy market. In fact, wind and solar energy are likely to be among the largest sources of new manufacturing jobs worldwide, according to the American Wind Energy Association. And with an increasing number of wind turbine component parts being produced domestically instead of imported, this could mean good news for nonresidential construction contractors seeking opportunities in a weak economy.
Already in the last few years, new wind tower, blade, turbine and assembly plants have opened in or been planned for Illinois, Iowa, South Dakota, Texas, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Colorado, North Carolina, New York, Oklahoma, Michigan, Tennessee, Nebraska, Idaho, Ohio, Montana and South Carolina.
When completed last fall, a TPI Composites wind turbine blade factory infused about 500 jobs into Newton, Iowa, which three years prior was devastated by the closing of Maytag Corporation’s headquarters and manufacturing plants. The 316,000-square-foot facility includes column-free manufacturing bays that accommodate production of the blades, which can reach up to 150 feet long and weigh 20,000 pounds; heavily reinforced concrete pavement to support blade handling equipment; and independent foundation support for blade manufacturing equipment.
Last spring, the Denver office of Mortenson Construction completed the first North American plant for Denmark-based Vestas Blade Facility, which has installed more than 35,500 wind turbines in 63 countries. Built on an 80-acre site in Windsor, Colo., the facility includes offices, blade mold-form areas, blade paint booths, and cranes to lift and transport the 8.2-ton blades.
Mortenson broke ground in June 2007 and Vestas produced its first blade Feb. 1, 2008, with final occupancy occurring three months later. Design-build delivery was utilized to accommodate the fast-track nature of the $42 million project.
Design-build also proved necessary on Mitsubishi Power Systems’ Blade and Vane Manufacturing Center of Excellence in Orlando, Fla. The project involved a 112,000-square-foot addition to a facility that refurbishes turbine parts for a variety of commercial and industrial power systems. Orlando-based H.J. High Construction Company got involved with the design in February 2007, broke ground the following August and wrapped up work in February 2008.
“If we’d done traditional design-bid-build, we wouldn’t have been able to design and permit in six months and complete construction in six months,” says Robert High, president of H.J. High Construction. “It was a $13 million project with $30 million of equipment that happened in one year—no other delivery method could have given us that.”
In addition to dealing with the tight schedule and numerous design changes, H.J. High coordinated the mechanical and electrical hook-ups for all of the owner-furnished equipment. And, during the design phase, the contractor was charged with creating a rooftop application to showcase 2,500 of Mitsubishi’s photovoltaic panels.
“We needed to lay out all of the panels and determine how to attach them to the roof,” High explains.
The project team upsized the building to carry all the photovoltaic panels, as well as added an observation deck and an additional stop on the elevator so people could view the panels, which Mitsubishi plans to install sometime this year.
According to High, not only will the panels supply 20 percent of the facility’s peak electrical needs, but they also will be the largest installation of solar panels in a private building in Florida.