WIND power is ready to give fossil fuels some real competition.
The 7,500 wind turbines spread across the ridges of Altamont Pass near here produce 1 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity each year, about one-third of the residential needs of San Francisco, a one-hour drive away.
Livermore, Calif.-based U.S. Windpower, which operates 4,200 of the machines, has developed a new generation of wind turbines that overcome many long-standing problems that have plagued the industry. Recently, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District signed a contract for a 50-megawatt plant.
After 10 years of development and a year of field tests, the 33M-VS wind turbine will produce electricity for 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, making it competitive with natural gas. Last fall, the federal government boosted the economics of wind power with legislation providing for a 1.5 cent-per-kilowatt-hour production tax credit.
"With the price of gas being so low, and gas being the fuel of choice in the utility industry today, [the 1.5 cent production credit] has the effect of getting us into the ballgame," says Alexander Ellis, a vice president at Kenetech/U.S. Windpower.
The value of wind-produced electricity "will increase as we hit the Clean Air Act compliance" deadlines in the year 2000, Mr. Ellis says. "Utilities are going to find that there are environmental considerations in the late '90s that weren't there before."
U.S. Windpower won more than 130 patents for technological innovations in the 33M-VS machine. Old wind turbines started producing power when wind speed reached 12 miles per hour and they cut out at 45 m.p.h. because of the possibility of equipment damage. The 33M-VS will produce electricity from 8 m.p.h. to 65 m.p.h. The biggest gains, says U.S. Windpower's Eric Miller, are made at the top speeds. The new turbine can store the energy of high gusts in increased rotor speed, providing uniform electrical ou tput. U.S. Windpower has developed a complete operating system to deliver power and to gather information. Vital statistics about thousands of wind turbines are fed into a computerized control room here. Operating information on each turbine is updated every two minutes. Broad response
Orders have come in from a variety of buyers. U.S. Windpower will build a 25-megawatt plant in Holland, a 50-megawatt plant in the northwestern US, a 10-megawatt plant in Alberta, Canada, and has announced a joint venture with Iowa-Illinois Gas & Electric for a 250-megawatt project in the Midwest.
"There is an excellent wind resource in northern New England - every bit as good as California," Ellis says. U.S. Windpower is developing a 250-megawatt site in central-western Maine near the Canadian border. Weather conditions are tough. But a lot of fuel oil is burned in the winter to generate electricity in New England, making clean wind-generated power environmentally attractive.