Due in great part to its low cost and high availability, wind energy has emerged as the fastest-growing energy source during the last decade, with global sales of wind turbines expected to reach more than $10 billion by 2008.
Industry professionals assert that the growth of wind energy has been driven by a demand for new forms of environmentally attractive energy, i.e., a growing public desire for “green energy” sources, along with the technology to make such energy cost-efficient to utilize. One initiative introduced by the Department of Energy (DOE) that is arguably leading the way for the continued usage of wind energy is called “Wind Powering America.” This initiative is expected to increase the federal use of wind energy to 5 percent by 2010, and ultimately, generate at least 5 percent of the nation’s electricity from wind by 2020. “Wind Powering America” is forecasted to provide $60 billion in capital investment and create 80,000 jobs over the next 20 years.
One man who has already experienced the demand and subsequent increase for wind-generated electricity is Larry Sevy, COO at Christenson Electric Inc. (DBA Christenson Corp.), located in Portland, Ore. The company, which operates with anywhere from 550 to 1,300 employees, with 600 as an average, participated in one of the largest wind projects to date, solidifying the role of the electrical contractor in the wind industry.
Sevy explained, “When it comes to wind installations, the people doing the developing of the projects are generally private entities, but the world’s largest single-owner wind project was done right out here in the Northwest. It was done by FPL Energy, the sister company of Florida Power and Light (FPL), a utility company that is the largest owner of wind farms.”
He added, “Our role as the electrical contractor is we work directly for the owner of the wind project, as essentially a subcontractor for all the electrical work on the wind installations. On this big project, we actually worked directly for the owner as a main contractor. We have also worked for general contractors that are responsible for doing all the roads, the big heavy tower and crane erection for putting the towers up and the foundations for the wind turbines. Under the general contractor scope, they would have all of the electrical work listed, which we would perform for a wind turbine project.”
Sevy considers Christenson Electric to be a “multi-faceted” electrical contractor, especially when it comes to wind projects, and believes that the expertise found at the company can easily handle the entire spectrum of electrical requirements necessary on typical wind projects.
“As a multi-faceted contractor, we have a high-voltage group, as well as a low-voltage technology group that performs all the fiber optic/fiber splicing and connections for the communications systems on these wind projects. We have electricians that also do the wiring of the wind towers. By being multi-faceted, Christenson is able to do all aspects of the electrical installation for wind projects, which includes the high-voltage substation and transmission and interconnection to the utilities power grid,” he said.
He continued, “We also have the technical expertise to do all of the relaying and control wiring within the substation for protective relay schemes and control schemes for the protection packages, which are basically over-current protections for these large breakers. Additionally, we have the capability to construct up to 500,000V systems. Typically, in the wind industry, the systems have very large underground collection systems and those typically run in the 34.5kV or 34,500V range. So we have the capability to do the installation and supply all the materials, as well as do all the splicing and trenching and installation of the high-voltage 34.5kV cable and terminations.”
However, even electrical expertise cannot overcome the typical obstacles faced when working on wind projects. Sevy said, “Generally, we are working in rugged terrains, because these are windy sites. Obviously, we want to build wind turbines where it is windy and generally, but not always, those areas are in rugged terrains and so accessibility to the work is sometimes difficult. Another thing is that these areas are typically very remote sites, so it is not like you are always near a town where there is electricity and water, which are not always readily available. Also, communications on some of these sites can be difficult because the sites can be very large. While there are other obstacles, you just deal with them as they arise. Having ‘been there, done that’ minimizes your risk and helps us be more efficient.”
The spectrum of electrical work on wind projects tends to be very expansive, ranging from low-voltage fiber optic communications systems to grid voltages as high as 500,000kV. When asked to summarize the involvement of electrical work on a wind project, Sevy offered an overview of what is required of electricians and contractors.
“Wind projects involve not only the skills of electricians, but also the skills of many other trades. But from the standpoint of electrical work on wind projects, it involves low-voltage fiber optic communication systems, as well as 600V and below wiring of lighting and control circuits within the wind towers and substations. Wind projects also involve the medium- to higher-voltages of 34.5kV collection systems, and the construction of utility-type substations to step the 34.5kV up to transmission grid voltages as high as the 500,000kV.”
He added, “The wind turbines themselves generate power that varies depending on the manufacturing, but the power is typically between 480V and 690V, and those generators are stepped up by pad transformers at the generator’s location. So how would I describe a wind project as it applies to electrical contractors? It’s that they cover the full gamut of electrical work, with everything from low voltage to high voltage work.”
Along with the increased demand in the Western United States for wind energy exists a parallel desire for solar power, which has also experienced a renewed interest. However, at least some people say the solar industry hasn’t had the same amount of success as the wind industry.
Sevy suggested, “There is an understandable relationship between solar and wind projects. We have worked with developers of solar power and discussed how wind projects could interact with solar projects. To date, I don’t know of one that is really interacted with the two industries. Although, I will say that solar seems to be, at least out here in the Northwest, a little bit behind the wind industry as far as its maturity. Part of the problem is because a lot of our areas are rainy and cloudy, which obviously don’t work as well for solar projects.”
Over the last 10 years, the wind industry has consistently improved its energy production, financial performance, technological status and reliability. As such, windmill electricity, no longer just an ecological statement, has become a moneymaker, blowing its breath of success in the direction of the electrical industry. EC
SILVA, a Hollywood, Fla.-based freelance writer, can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.