Defying Gravity, The Race is on for Wind Energy

Feature from the August Issue of WRE

With seemingly endless media alerts and live streaming footage of the oil spill in the Gulf only a few clicks away, the prospect of clean energy has once again taken center stage in shaping the future of America’s energy supply.  The difference this time around though is that the various forms of clean energy, or green infrastructure, are not convenient easy-come, easy-go ideas only heard within the D.C. beltway; rather these are heavily funded investments and solutions by businesses across the U.S. that aim to boost their bottom line – and they’ve already taken root within the crane and rigging industry.  One of the most prominent examples of clean energy at work today is wind turbine power.

Wind power is growing in popularity across the globe, and now is the time for manufacturers and suppliers to join the race while the industry is building out its supply chain.  To say that this is a green movement is correct but probably not the eco-friendly shade or leisurely pace you’re thinking. The real stimulus is the sizable investment that the federal government continues to direct toward clean-energy technology and the already $20 billion strong marketplace and 85,000 jobs that exists in the U.S within the wind industry. With the prospect of the federal government tripling clean energy investments in wind technology and the potential to supply up to 20% of all domestic power and employ over 500,000 Americans, it’s safe to say that in this case, it is greener on the other side.

Civilizations have harnessed wind power for thousands of years for everything from propelling ships, milling grain, irrigation pumping to building ventilation. So what has made wind energy a viable market today that didn’t exist two decades or even two centuries ago?  According to Jeff Anthony, Director of Business Development at the American Wind Energy Association, government policy changes and the reduction of costly market barriers have attributed to what is today a rapidly growing marketplace.

Anthony highlights two specific policies in the past twenty years that have brought wind power mainstream. The state Renewable Electricity Standard passed by 29 states in the early 1980s was the impetus for a uniformed approach to wind energy production.

Currently, the wind industry is seeking passage of a national Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) to create a stable and long-term market for American manufacturing. This proposes a mandate that utility companies generate a growing share of their electricity from renewable energy sources.

Equally important is the federal Production Tax Credit (PTC) first passed in 1992 that allowed businesses that invested in wind energy to receive federal tax credits to help mitigate the costly research and required infrastructure. The credit was initially scheduled to expire in 1999 but has since been extended multiple times by Congress, most recently by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, where Congress acted to provide a three-year extension of the PTC through the end of 2012. The PTC provides an income tax credit of 2.1 cents per kilowatt-hour for the production of electricity from utility-scale wind turbines. Additionally, wind project developers can choose to receive a 30% investment tax credit (ITC) in place of the PTC for facilities placed in service in 2009 and 2010, and also for facilities placed in service before 2013 if construction begins before the end of 2010. Without these tax incentives, few businesses would invest the sizable funds needed to make this energy source production a fiscal reality.

The recent surge of this industry falls in perfect step with the traditional products and services that rigging and crane companies have provided for years. It also offers these same companies the opportunity to expand their scope into new markets and invest in new product manufacturing never used before. Consider this – modern wind turbines consist of over 8,000 components – all highly engineered for top quality and little maintenance. Mike Parnell, President and CEO of Industrial Training International (ITI) in Woodland, Washington, acknowledges that there is plenty of opportunity for both large and small companies within this supply chain.

ITI provides crane and rigging training/consulting for hundreds of clients in the U.S. and around the world. Parnell is the ASME B30 Main Committee Vice-Chair, a member of five B30 Subcommittees, CIC Rigging Certification Committee Chair, a member of the Associated Wire Rope Fabricators and is a charter member of the Association of Crane & Rigging Professionals. Having served as a mechanical field consultant for the electrical, utility, mining, maritime, construction and nuclear industries, Parnell is a specialist in crane and rigging operations, accident investigation and rigging design.

To expand their business into the wind industry, ITI partnered with Vestas America, the North American subsidiary of parent company and wind industry giant Vestas out of the Netherlands.  As Parnell explains, the large wind companies bid and win government and private contracts to design and install wind turbines yet they are relatively new to the rigging challenges associated with the actual construction in North America. Existing companies like ITI not only provide experience but also a marketable advantage for insurance requirements as well. ITI partnered with Vestas to not only provide on-site training and education but also develop specific lift plans and serve in the role of rigging advisor as well for North American wind turbine installations. Parnell sees this capacity only expanding and is currently preparing for another surge in new construction based on market conditions and tax credits over the next 3-4 years. “In the past 10-20 years, we learned a lot from the wind farms they installed in the California coastal mountain range and saw that as the introductory phase in the U.S. and a viable secondary market after Europe” Parnell explains. He goes on to add that “we are just now seeing wind power pass that experimental stage and now power companies are acting upon request.”

Growth in a new industry is not without certain drawbacks.  Even though policy changes have encouraged the nurturing of this market and technology where engineering has facilitated modern design efficiency, wind power is still, in large part, in its infancy when it comes to actual installation in the field. As Parnell concedes, “this is a high maintenance operation… and accessing suitable sites has its own challenges.” Soft ground and high winds have resulted in industry companies selecting and contracting only with the most qualified crane companies. Elements as basic as access and ground compaction can create a unique set of problems. Parnell recalls several jobs trying to place and stage equipment within cornfields with loads approaching 30 tons at 300ft elevation in 15mph winds. Such challenges, however, resulted in solutions yielding new site proofing techniques, new crane matting designs, and production of new equipment and components.

Eagle West Cranes, another industry player who has taken a leading role in North American wind turbine installation, has built half of all wind farms in Western Canada in the past ten years, installing 227 turbines creating 419 megawatts of power over that span, and is currently engaged in two additional farms. Gerry Wiebe, Vice President of Business Development at Eagle West Cranes, and Murray Westerberg, Vice President of Eagle West Wind Energy, notes that the industry is becoming refined as each project has become more involved, more sophisticated.  They also believe that though there is a current surge in the turbine construction, there is a long-term opportunity also being created in maintenance of the wind turbines. This opportunity fits perfectly with EWC’s solution-based philosophy of providing customers with today’s needs coupled with sustainability for tomorrow. According to Wiebe, “when you look at erecting new wind turbine infrastructure, gravity needs to be defied by a crane to put each item in place.  To succeed it’s the rigging that needs to be continuously evolved to get the job done right.” Wind turbine construction epitomizes this need to search for dynamic ways to rig products. “There’s nothing small about a wind turbine – everything is huge – every lift is a big lift and every lift is an aerial lift. Whether it’s maintaining and changing out gearboxes or lifting a blade to a 100-meter center point, there is extremely low tolerance for inferior products or workmanship. Wiebe sums it up best that “projects will have 50 installers and you need the best tradesmen, technicians and engineers every time because there’s no margin for error.”

Not only does the wind industry employ top talent, but also the provisions being enacted to safeguard workers are met with equal importance. With new regulations to be released in this July through new construction codes with OSHA, wind energy construction will have to meet with new standards comparable to the nuclear industry performance and requirements.

Contractors will be required to have a certified crane operator, qualified signal person and qualified rigger. Furthermore, fabricators are insisting on rigging to be proof-tested and documented, and site delivery of equipment must present load test certificate and everything must be serial-numbered and segregated for use for workers safety.  What this means for certain companies is yet another opportunity for accredited training courses for these workers, but for the industry, it is representative of the overall emphasis placed on top-tiered quality and safety as well.

The same quality requirements can be said as well for the products being used.  Though each turbine consists of thousands of pieces, there are only twenty major components. With direct connection, the rigging doesn’t get the traditional wear and tear seen in other heavy load uses in general construction. The slings never touches the load, instead the shackle makes the connection. Ultimately though, productivity comes down to the relationship between the quality of product as it relates to downtime for maintenance. That is why more select, itemized pieces of rigging are in demand. The demand for specialized rigging is spurring opportunity for product manufacturers. Industrial Training International has worked with Vestas and Lift-All on an order of 800 tool bag sling sets specifically designed for turbine use. The Tool Bag Sling with four sling legs, each with a capacity of 300 pounds, in eight-inch increments for quick, one stop loading and unloading of tool bags. While the product can be used in a variety of markets, the tool bag sling was created with turbine installation in mind.

Additionally, new companies are entering the wind energy field and competing with product innovation as well positioning themselves to become leaders in this emerging industry.  American Drill Bushing has developed swivel hoist rings that rotate from the bottom of the connecting device. The need was to create unique hardware connectors to bolt on devices that attach to the top of the wind turbine tube as it is erected in four or five stages. With an 80-ton system working load limit, 360-degree swivel range and 180-degree pivot range, the swivel hoist rings greatly reduce sling bind and offer a universal fit on all towers. ADB capitalized on this need, researched, designed, and created the right product for the job.

The wind industry continues to evolve in a new frontier. It has matured from an experimental energy source into a competitive market place for clean energy technology in a very short timeframe.  As it continues to grow, new challenges will continue to surface.  The ultimate benefit of green infrastructure, whether wind power or not, is that it emphasizes an approach built on sustainability that does not sacrifice productivity.  Recent history has brought advancements in everything from more efficient machinery, better quality materials and innovative techniques within every industry. We have better choices today that offer smarter solutions. It only makes sense to take advantage of these choices and align business opportunities with what is more appropriately deemed a mainstream reality rather than an alternative.
Companies interested in the wind energy industry can learn more at www.awea.org/valuechain/ or at www.glwn.org.

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