Winds of change

Winds of change

Project cargo imports into the U.S. plunged last year after many power plant projects on the verge of beginning construction instead were canceled or placed on hold in the wake of Enron's collapse in late 2001 and California's botched deregulation of its energy market.

What is emerging in its place for the project cargo market is an alternative energy source: wind generation.

Nationwide, the deregulation of domestic power markets has slowed to a crawl in the wake of political and technical hurdles that sapped the momentum to open the industry to free-market forces. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has reined in plans for a national market and instead is focusing on developing regional hubs. Scores of U.S. power plant construction projects - including three by Teco Energy and seven by Reliant Energy - have either been suspended or canceled.

"There is a decline in project-cargo volumes from the Far East to the Americas that has followed the decline in power generation," said Greg Stangel, vice president of marketing systems at Intermarine USA. "There was a large domestic building boom trying to take place that had a lot of equipment moving. Then Enron and California deregulation burst that bubble.

"Now, a lot of that equipment that's been imported is sitting in storage," he said. "Meanwhile, wind generation is big in North Europe and it's beginning to catch on here. The Europeans are building big islands in the North Sea with windmills 200 feet high."

Germany is the world leader in installed wind power capacity.

Technological advances have improved the efficiency of wind generators, boosting their popularity and application, allowing them to produce power on a massive scale, powering entire small cities. Electronic monitoring; taller turbine towers; and more aerodynamic, larger blade designs now allow a 1.65-megawatt turbine to generate 120 times the electricity of its predecessor in 1980, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

That capability of modern wind turbines is attracting the attention of utility companies. Iowa's largest utility, MidAmerican Energy, plans to build a 310-megawatt wind-energy-generating facility, which at $323 million is the largest land-based wind project in the world.

The wind farm will consist of 180 to 200 turbines, each producing about 1.5 megawatts of electricity. The electricity generated will be enough to power 85,000 homes, according to the utility company. The first units are scheduled to come on line by the end of 2004, and MidAmerican hopes to have the project completed by 2006.

Iowa is ranked as the 10th windiest state in the nation, and is third behind Texas and California - where several large wind farms have been built and more are under construction - in wind energy production. Other wind generators are being built offshore in the Northeast.

The total installed capacity of wind energy in the U.S. at the end of last year was about 4,600 megawatts, enough to serve more than 1.2 million households. The AWEA estimates that wind energy could provide 6 percent of the nation's electricity by 2020.

Utilities in Illinois, Wisconsin, the Dakotas and Nebraska also are discussing wind generation.

Their components are shipped mostly from Brazil and Denmark. Intermarine USA, Wallenius Wilhelmsen and BBC Chartering & Logistics have handled large shipments of turbines and wind blades in the past year. BBC recently handled a shipment of components for 81 wind generators on 12 vessels into Houston, bound for northern California. Wind generation now accounts for about 1.3 percent of all electricity supply in California.

"We handle wind power out of South America for General Electric," said John Felitto, general manager of sales at Wallenius Wilhelmsen, which in April dedicated a new vessel to handle windmill blade shipments from Brazil to Galveston, Texas.

The Enron scandal has also hit the wind generation energy. Andrew Fastow, Enron's former chief financial officer, and his wife, Lea, Enron's former assistant treas-urer, are accused of masking Enron's illegal ownership in a group of California wind farms. They allegedly funneled tens of thousands of dollars in farm profits to themselves.

In other regions, officials with Public Service Co. of New Mexico say a field of giant wind-powered electricity generators are scheduled to go online by the end of July. The project, which is being developed by Florida Power & Light Energy, will have 136 of the 210-foot tall wind towers that are expected to generate enough electricity to supply 94,000 homes.