Vestas Hopes to Bring Wind Power to World

Source: By DIANE CARDWELL, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Patrick Pleul/European Pressphoto Agency

Employees working on rotor blades at a plant of Vestas, the wind technology company, in Lauchhammer, Germany.

In recent years, solar energy has emerged as a solution for powering places that lack sufficient electricity, frequently remote areas in developing nations where conventional fuel can be expensive.

Now, Vestas, the wind technology giant, is betting its products can do the same. On Monday, the company announced a project called Wind for Prosperity, with the goal of bringing low-cost power to rural populations around the globe.

The project — a partnership of Vestas, Masdar, the Abu Dhabi renewable energy company and Frontier Investment Management, a Danish private equity outfit — aims to start supplying electricity next year to more than 200,000 people spread across roughly 13 communities in Kenya. The company plans to replicate the project elsewhere in Africa and in Asia and Latin America, using refurbished wind turbines in tandem with diesel generators to cut power costs by at least 30 percent, Vestas executives said.

“These are the areas where it is obvious and it is indisputable that you can lower the cost of electricity generation significantly with wind energy because there is so much wind,” said Morten Albaek, the company’s chief marketing officer.

Mr. Albaek said he wanted to raise $150 million to $200 million to meet the program’s goals of serving at least one million people in 100 communities in the next three years. But the payoff is unclear. Wind development is still limited in remote regions of emerging economies, which often do not have established infrastructure and carry high transportation and construction costs. Mr. Albaek declined to say how much return investors could expect.

The program could help create demand for wind power when some of the biggest markets have shown signs of slowing or face uncertainty. In Australia, the government is moving to undo a carbon tax while European nations are planning cuts to the subsidies that have spurred rapid wind development.

In the United States, the industry remains robust, at least for now. After a brief lapse at the beginning of the year, lawmakers revived a popular incentive, known as the production tax credit. It is again set to expire in December.

The industry has largely grown over the last decade, but its fortunes have followed the credit as Congress has periodically allowed it to lapse and then renewed it.

The tax credit has been important in helping wind compete with conventional fuels, bringing its price near that of other sources of power. Utilities in a number of regions are signing long-term contracts for wind, said Elizabeth Salerno, the chief economist and director of industry data and statistics at the American Wind Energy Association, because executives say it is their most affordable option.

“Of course all of this is with the caveat right now that those contracts include the P.T.C.,” she said. “They’re locking in this wind at these prices not only because of its affordability but also because they can lock it in for 20 or 30 years.”

Although the American market is expected to stay strong through next year, the outlook for 2015 is uncertain, with the probable fate of the credit tied up in broader Congressional efforts to redesign the tax code.

Given those uncertainties, manufacturers like Vestas, which is based in Denmark, are looking to expand into emerging markets like Brazil and South Africa, as well as untapped areas.

Vestas estimates that roughly 50 million people living without sufficient electricity also live in zones with strong winds. At the same time, wind turbine technology has advanced and current customers have sought to upgrade their equipment, creating a pool of machinery that, with repair, could last at least another decade, Mr. Albaek said. The refurbished turbines are smaller and are therefore easier to transport and install than the new models, which have been getting bigger to capture more wind at higher altitudes.

“We are taking the technology that created the green revolution in the Western world, in the Old World, and now bringing it to the New World and to the developing countries,” he said.