Trouble Brewing for Wind?

Report finds sharp increase in operating and maintenance costs

1 min read

Amid much good news for wind--an onging global surge in wind energy installations, the go-ahead from the U.S. government for the immensely controversial Cape Wind project--comes a report detailing a sharp rise in wind operating costs and poor performance relative to other countries. Prepared by the independent business intelligence service Wind Energy Update, the Wind Energy Operations & Maintenance Report finds that current O&M costs are two or three times higher than first projected and that there has been a 21 percent decrease in returns on investments in wind farms. O&M costs were found to be especially high in the United States, "now the world's largest wind power market."

Based on surveys, the report estimates average world O&M costs at 2.7 U.S. cents per kilowatthour, which compares with the 2 c/kWh at which costs roughly equal the value of U.S. wind production credits.* The report says that while close to 80 percent of the world's wind turbines are still under warranty, "this is about to change." R&D is focusing especially on gearbox reliability: "Many gearboxes, designed for a 20-year life, are failing after six to eight years of operation."

POSTSCRIPT (5/27/10): to listen to a podcast interview with the author of the report, click here

* My apologies to readers for the inexcusable typo that appeared in the original version of this post, and for my having been so slow to notice alerts to the mistake in comments

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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