Sunday, January 13, 2013

Wind Energy at TECO-Westinghouse
Published in the Sun January 13, 2013

Turbine blade at TECO-Westinghouse
 Driving past the TECO-Westinghouse plant on Interstate 35, I always look for the two longhorns in the pasture in front of the rusty brown building, a small oasis of rural tranquility alongside the main artery of Central Texas.  Two weeks ago, instead of driving past, I was privileged to visit the plant to meet with Richard Fesmire, Director of Operations at the only TECO-Westinghouse facility in the United States, right here in Williamson County.  We met to talk about wind energy.


In 2006, TECO-Westinghouse teamed up with DeWind, a successful German company, to bring wind turbine production to the US.  Since that partnership was formed, TECO-Westinghouse has built and installed 110 of the enormous turbines, whose blades sweep a circle in the sky bigger than a football field.  Most of these turbines have gone to the Novus Wind Project in the Texas-Oklahoma panhandle area.  A few have been sold to projects in Chile and Canada, and one turbine was installed in Sweetwater, Texas for a wind technology training program at Texas State Technical College.  (Think green jobs of the future.)

About 3% of US electricity comes from wind power.  Texas has more installed wind capacity than any other state, and more than twice as much as Iowa, which is number 2.  On November 10, 2012 at 10:21 AM, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas set a new record for wind energy production.  At that moment 8521 megawatts of wind energy generation provided the state-wide grid with 26% of its total electricity.  From 2006 to 2010, wind energy generation in Texas quadrupled to 26 million megawatt hours, partially stimulated by the federal wind energy production tax credit, which essentially subsidizes wind energy producers 2.2 cents for every kilowatt-hour of electricity produced.  (The retail price for electricity in our area is 10 to 11 cents per kilowatt-hour.) 


The production tax credit was created in 1992 and has expired several times, but was always renewed.  It was raised to its current level in 2005, creating a boom in private wind energy investment to the tune of about $15 billion per year.  A law passed by the Texas legislature in 2005 began construction of 2300 miles of high voltage transmission lines to bring even more wind energy electricity from West Texas and the Panhandle, where the wind blows, to Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio, where people use it.

Mr. Fesmire shows me the hubs and rotor shafts for the D9.2 DeWind turbine, which is rated to produce 2 megawatts of power under optimal conditions.  His eyes light up when he tells me about the peak of TECO-Westinghouse’s turbine production last year.  After spending millions of dollars to develop the assembly process, his workers had the capacity to put an 80 ton turbine on a truck every 8 hours, each turbine requiring about 1000 man-hours of work.  “That was a lot of fun,” he admits.  So why is he speaking in past tense?  Why was nobody working on the assembly line on the day of my visit?


On December 31 the production tax credit was set to expire.  As the “fiscal cliff” approached, investors were afraid that this time the credit might not be renewed, so they waited.  Orders for wind turbines slowed to a trickle.  Mr. Fesmire had predicted that without the tax credit TECO-Westinghouse could build as few as ten turbines in 2013.  He hasn’t had to lay anybody off, because they are still building lots of motors for the oil and gas industries, but he had hoped to hire 35 more people to build turbines and wasn’t able to.

Fortunately, the fiscal cliff bill passed by Congress on New Year’s Day extends the wind energy production tax credit for another year, allowing Mr. Fesmire to feel optimistic, although he would like to see a longer range plan.  On-again, off-again policies are terrible for business.


Some people argue that wind energy should be able to stand on its own two feet without government support.  Sounds good, but the tax credits for oil and gas have been in place since 1916 and are permanently built into the tax code, so those industries are not plagued by uncertainty.  Also, the price we pay for electricity from a coal or natural gas plant does not include the long-term costs to society of carbon dioxide emissions and other air pollution, making those fuels look cheaper than they really are.  Burning coal for electricity is sort of like eating fast food:  it’s easy and cheap if you don’t count the cost of the heart attack down the road.

Richard Fesmire with rotor shafts for D9.2 turbine


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