August 10th, 2020 by Steve Hanley
Vestas is a leading global supplier of wind turbines. It is also now the world’s largest wind turbine service supplier with more than 10,000 workers servicing 47,000 wind turbines around the world. Combined, those turbines produce 134 GW of renewable electricity — enough to prevent one hundred million tons of carbon dioxide emissions from entering the atmosphere annually and equivalent to removing 90 million passenger cars from the world’s roadways.
Vestas’ service business began in 2014 and has grown to become a profitable adjunct to the company’s primary business of building and installing wind turbines. “Vestas has led the energy transition for the past four decades. Our current portfolio of 115 GW installations and 100 GW under service shows how far Vestas and wind energy has come,” says Henrik Andersen, the CEO of Vestas. “As the current global pandemic has demonstrated, renewables are fast becoming a critical component of the global energy system as well as an important element in the green recovery of the world’s economies. To this end, the service business plays an increasingly important role in ensuring a balanced and stable supply of energy to communities all over the world and in supporting a growing number of jobs globally.”
140 times a day, the turbines Vestas services send data on their operating environment to the Vestas Performance and Diagnostics Center, where advanced digital tools developed by the company allow it to identify impending maintenance issues before they lead to an interruption of service. They also allow Vestas subsidiary Otupus Insights to make accurate predictions about the expected output of those turbines to help energy providers maintain a constant flow of electricity throughout the grid.
“Reaching this milestone has been made possible through our strong collaboration with our customers and partners and is a testament to the dedicated work of the many service employees in Vestas. Using big data, analytics and digital tools enables us to create effective service solutions that optimize our customers’ business cases and make wind power a reliable part of the global energy mix,” says Christian Venderby, executive vice president of Vestas Global Service. “Service of wind turbines plays a crucial role in the global energy system and scale will continue to be critical to ensure the right value proposition for customers as the market moves toward merchant conditions and the focus on life cycle cost of wind power increases.”
A Plea For Rational Permitting Of Transmission Lines
Chris Brown is the head of sales and service in the US and Canada for Vestas. In a recent blog post, he calls for streamlining the permitting process for building high voltage interstate transmission lines to bring renewable energy produced in rural areas to urban settings where the demand is high.
“Every week you open your browser, scan the headlines, and see something to the effect of, ‘fossil fuels are out and clean energy is in.’ The recent court decision upholding the shutdown of the Dakota Access Pipeline and Dominion and Duke’s decision to abandon their Atlantic Coast pipeline project indicate a changing tide in how consumers and utilities view our energy future,” Brown says. “Most Americans want clean energy. People want electric vehicles and a cleaner environment. But, our policies on building the infrastructure to deliver this clean energy future have not caught up to public sentiment.”
Everyone has their eye on the upcoming election, which could see a Democrat with significant clean energy goals in mind in the White House.
“Goals aside, the fact remains we need more transmission to move cheap wind and solar from more rural areas to load centers if we want to reach ambitious clean energy goals. We need a new wave of electron pipelines. Unfortunately, unfavorable permitting policies mean a transmission project can take up to 10 years to construct. On the other hand, relatively favorable policies for natural gas pipelines mean they can breeze through their permitting approval process in as quickly as 1.5 years and start construction.
“Why is it we have more favorable permitting policies for what we want less of — natural gas pipelines — and arduous permitting policies for what we want more of — clean power? If we have any chance of getting to 50% renewables or 100% carbon-free, our policies must be designed to deploy electron pipelines in the most efficient and safest way possible.”
The problem, as Brown sees it, is that natural gas pipeline objections can be cleared by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has the power to override state and local roadblocks. On the other hand, interstate transmission lines can be stymied by state or local opposition. Brown advocates for bringing the transmission line permitting process under the jurisdiction of FERC or creating a similar federal agency to deal with interstate permitting.
The elephant in the room, Brown maintains, is that “transmission lines are large and bulky, while natural gas pipelines are low to the ground and less obtrusive. The visibility of transmission lines can lead to local opposition that can derail projects. But there are ways to lessen their visual impact and to do so economically. We can improve transmission timelines through coordinated transmission working groups that focus on action, altering the siting process, incentivizing buried lines and community involvement, and leaning into new technologies.”
Brown also is aware of the recent interest in renewable hydrogen, which could be transported in existing natural gas pipelines. He refers specifically to the prototype facility NextEra Energy is constructing in Florida. But a question we have here at CleanTechnica is, could those same pipelines be repurposed to carry transmission lines as well? Not being engineers, we don’t have an answer, but would appreciate feedback from our readers.
He adds, “We need to transfer the relatively easy aspects of natural gas pipeline siting to the electron pipelines that will help us maintain energy independence and fight the climate emergency. We also need to consider how we can capitalize on existing natural gas pipelines to avoid the siting problem all around. And we need to do all this while still listening to communities.”
Policy & Progress
Brown points out that America’s Apollo program was a policy initiative that forced technological change.
“However, there are far more times when technology is a policy-forcing tool. We are in the latter situation when it comes to transmission. Grid technologies exist that can help us achieve high levels of renewable energy integration even without a federal clean energy mandate.
“High voltage DC lines coupled with line efficiency technologies, energy storage, and clean hydrogen can get us where we need to be. The fact we have the tools but are being hindered by piecemeal regulations should force serious reconsideration of a policy landscape where we make it easy to pollute and difficult to deploy clean energy. We must get out of our own way and let policy and technology work in tandem to reach our clean energy goals.”
One person’s policy goals may trample on another’s ideas about what is best for local communities. We at CleanTechnica are forever vigilant about policies that disadvantage underserved communities and communities of color. Lots of FERC decisions have jammed pipelines down the throats of communities with little of no political power, especially tribal communities. Brown’s suggestions seem to pay lip service to such social justice concerns while advocating for federal authority to overrule local objections.
Then there is the whole microgrid versus transmission lines debate. Not everyone agrees we need to supply New Yorkers coming home from work with electricity from wind farms in the central part of America. High voltage transmission lines are expensive to build and as much as people prefer renewable energy, many do not want to see the wind turbines that produce it. The state of New York is dealing with similar issues now as it promotes its clean energy goals by reducing the ability of rural communities to block renewable energy projects, which is great if you are a developer but not so great if you want to preserve the natural beauty of your community.
The upshot of all this is the current political landscape favors the construction of natural gas pipelines but discourages the development of high voltage transmission lines that would bring renewable energy to the places where it is needed. If nothing else, Brown’s argument is that there ought to be a level playing field for all energy providers. That’s a position most of us would support.
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