Repowering older wind turbines, which involves replacing aging turbines or components, is becoming more common in the United States as the turbine fleet ages and as wind turbine technology advances. Newer turbines tend to be larger and installed at greater heights, allowing for more capacity per turbine. About 12% of the wind turbines in the United States were installed before 2000, but these turbines make up only 2% of the installed wind electricity generating capacity.
Federal production tax credits provide an incentive to increase electricity generation from existing wind turbines. In December 2015, the production tax credit (PTC) was extended until the end of 2019. The four-year extension and legislated phase-out of the PTC is expected to encourage many asset owners to repower existing wind facilities to requalify them to receive another 10 years of tax credits. A facility may still qualify for the PTC as long as at least 80% of the property’s value is new. This provision allows many owners to repower existing turbines without completely replacing them.
Fully repowering wind turbines involves decommissioning and removing existing turbines and replacing them with newer turbines at the same project site. Full repowering has mostly occurred in California, where many turbines were installed at high-wind sites before 1990.
Partial repowering involves leaving some portion of the existing wind turbine and replacing select components. By partially repowering, owners can increase hub heights and rotor diameters to produce more energy.
Although wind turbines are designed with lifespans of between 20 and 25 years, wind capacity factors decline with age as mechanical parts degrade, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Wind Technologies Market Report. The United Kingdom’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in 2014 indicated that, on average, the output of wind turbines declines by 1.6% each year. Repowering can increase the output of a wind facility, improve reliability, and extend the life of a facility by taking advantage of advances in wind turbine technology.
Newer turbines tend to rotate much more slowly and quietly than older, smaller turbines, turning at 10 to 20 revolutions per minute (rpm) instead of 40 to 60 rpm. Slower wind turbine rotations alleviate issues such as bird mortality and shadow flicker.
Repowering generally requires significantly less investment compared with new projects. However, repowering wind turbines does present some challenges. For example, the risk of failure may increase when reusing components such as towers and foundations that were designed for smaller turbines. Other challenges may include renegotiating power purchase agreements, interconnection agreements, and leases.
According to General Electric (GE), the largest wind turbine installer in the United States, repowering wind turbines can increase the fleet output by 25% and can add 20 years to turbine life from the time of the repower. General Electric has repowered at least 300 wind turbines, and the company expects this market to grow. MidAmerican Energy recently awarded a contract to GE Renewable Energy to repower as many as 706 older turbines at several wind farms in Iowa. After repowering, each turbine is expected to generate between 19% and 28% more electricity.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has indicated that annual U.S. wind repowering investment has the potential to grow to $25 billion by 2030. EIA data indicate that three projects are currently planned for repowering: Mendota Hills, LLC in Illinois and Sweetwater Wind 2 LLC in Texas are scheduled for repowering in 2018, and Windpark Unlimited 1 in California is scheduled for repowering in 2022.
In addition, Rocky Mountain Power has announced its intent to repower wind turbines in Wyoming and is currently awaiting a public hearing on the issue. NextEra Energy is planning to repower two wind farms in Texas by the end of this year.
More information about electric generators in the United States is available in EIA’s Annual Electric Generator Report. The early release of the 2016 version of this report was made available in August; the final version is scheduled for release in November.
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In 2021, the makeup of renewables has also changed drastically. Technologies such as solar and wind are no longer novel, as is the idea of blending vegetable oils into road fuels or switching to electric-based vehicles. Such ideas are now entrenched and are not considered enough to shift the world into a carbon neutral future. The new wave of renewables focus on converting by-products from other carbon-intensive industries into usable fuels. Research into such technologies has been pioneered in universities and start-ups over the past two decades, but the impetus of global climate goals is now seeing an incredible amount of money being poured into them as oil & gas giants seek to rebalance their portfolios away from pure hydrocarbons with a goal of balancing their total carbon emissions in aggregate to zero.
Traditionally, the European players have led this drive. Which is unsurprising, since the EU has been the most driven in this acceleration. But even the US giants are following suit. In the past year, Chevron has poured an incredible amount of cash and effort in pioneering renewables. Its motives might be less than altruistic, shareholders across America have been particularly vocal about driving this transformation but the net results will be positive for all.
Chevron’s recent efforts have focused on biomethane, through a partnership with global waste solutions company Brightmark. The joint venture Brightmark RNG Holdings operations focused on convert cow manure to renewable natural gas, which are then converted into fuel for long-haul trucks, the very kind that criss-cross the vast highways of the US delivering goods from coast to coast. Launched in October 2020, the joint venture was extended and expanded in August, now encompassing 38 biomethane plants in seven US states, with first production set to begin later in 2021. The targeting of livestock waste is particularly crucial: methane emissions from farms is the second-largest contributor to climate change emissions globally. The technology to capture methane from manure (as well as landfills and other waste sites) has existed for years, but has only recently been commercialised to convert methane emissions from decomposition to useful products.
This is an arena that another supermajor – BP – has also made a recent significant investment in. BP signed a 15-year agreement with CleanBay Renewables to purchase the latter’s renewable natural gas (RNG) to be mixed and sold into select US state markets. Beginning with California, which has one of the strictest fuel standards in the US and provides incentives under the Low Carbon Fuel Standard to reduce carbon intensity – CleanBay’s RNG is derived not from cows, but from poultry. Chicken manure, feathers and bedding are all converted into RNG using anaerobic digesters, providing a carbon intensity that is said to be 95% less than the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of pure fossil fuels and non-conversion of poultry waste matter. BP also has an agreement with Gevo Inc in Iowa to purchase RNG produced from cow manure, also for sale in California.
But road fuels aren’t the only avenue for large-scale embracing of renewables. It could take to the air, literally. After all, the global commercial airline fleet currently stands at over 25,000 aircraft and is expected to grow to over 35,000 by 2030. All those planes will burn a lot of fuel. With the airline industry embracing the idea of AAF (or Alternative Aviation Fuels), developments into renewable jet fuels have been striking, from traditional bio-sources such as palm or soybean oil to advanced organic matter conversion from agricultural waste and manure. Chevron, again, has signed a landmark deal to advance the commercialisation. Together with Delta Airlines and Google, Chevron will be producing a batch of sustainable aviation fuel at its El Segundo refinery in California. Delta will then use the fuel, with Google providing a cloud-based framework to analyse the data. That data will then allow for a transparent analysis into carbon emissions from the use of sustainable aviation fuel, as benchmark for others to follow. The analysis should be able to confirm whether or not the International Air Transport Association (IATA)’s estimates that renewable jet fuel can reduce lifecycle carbon intensity by up to 80%. And to strengthen the measure, Delta has pledged to replace 10% of its jet fuel with sustainable aviation fuel by 2030.
In a parallel, but no less pioneering lane, France’s TotalEnergies has announced that it is developing a 100% renewable fuel for use in motorsports, using bioethanol sourced from residues produced by the French wine industry (among others) at its Feyzin refinery in Lyon. This, it believes, will reduce the racing sports’ carbon emissions by an immediate 65%. The fuel, named Excellium Racing 100, is set to debut at the next season of the FIA World Endurance Championship, which includes the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans 2022 race.
But Chevron isn’t done yet. It is also falling back on the long-standing use of vegetable oils blended into US transport fuels by signing a wide-ranging agreement with commodity giant Bunge. Called a ‘farmer-to-fuelling station’ solution, Bunge’s soybean processing facilities in Louisiana and Illinois will be the source of meal and oil that will be converted by Chevron into diesel and jet fuel. With an investment of US$600 million, Chevron will assist Bunge in doubling the combined capacity of both plants by 2024, in line with anticipated increases in the US biofuels blending mandates.
Even ExxonMobil, one of the most reticent of the supermajors to embrace renewables wholesale, is getting in on the action. Its Imperial Oil subsidiary in Canada has announced plans to commercialise renewable diesel at a new facility near Edmonton using plant-based feedstock and hydrogen. The venture does only target the Canadian market – where political will to drive renewable adoption is far higher than in the US – but similar moves have already been adopted by other refiners for the US market, including major investments by Phillips 66 and Valero.
Ultimately, these recent moves are driven out of necessity. This is the way the industry is moving and anyone stubborn enough to ignore it will be left behind. Combined with other major investments driven by European supermajors over the past five years, this wider and wider adoption of renewable can only be better for the planet and, eventually, individual bottom lines. The renewables ball is rolling fast and is only gaining momentum.
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