The annual show put on by the American Wind Energy Association is always a good place to see innovative technology for wind power. This year's event, which recently wrapped up, was no different. Regardless of what you may think about the wind industry, you must admit a lot of clever mechanical and electrical engineering goes into modern wind turbines.
But though the technology of wind power is admirable, the financial side of the business has a reputation for being a bit seamy. This partly comes from operators and manufacturers who treat a lot of the data about how wind turbines and wind farms actually perform as proprietary. They often claim releasing such information would give their competitors a leg up. Detractors say the real reason for keeping such information private is that the performance of many wind farms is abysmal, and releasing details of their operations would be embarrassing.
It is easy to see where this idea arises. Consider the experience of one financial consultant attending this year's show. He serves as a sort of BS detector for pension funds and big hedge funds interested in investments that involve technology.
I ran into him coming out of a presentation on wind farm siting. He was shaking his head. “The wind farm projects that tend to get funded are those that overestimate the amount of wind available,” he fumed, “because they are the ones that, on paper, give the best return on investment. So there is a built-in bias to fund projects most likely to disappoint their investors.”
It goes without saying that such unwarranted optimism might also help explain claims by doubters that some wind farms make more from government subsidies than from actually selling electricity.
Wind turbine makers play numbers games, too. A case in point is specifying how wind turbines perform at various wind speeds. Some manufacturers only list turbine output for a few specific wind conditions (those at which the turbines perform best, cynics might say) rather than over the range of conditions likely to arise in real use. Performance at other speeds is typically interpolated from real data points.
But there are questions about whether or not such interpolated performance data is accurate. Some suspect manufacturers manipulate these estimates to put their products in the best possible light. “I wouldn't call it dishonest, but there are certainly a lot of fudged figures in this industry,” said one wind veteran.
Wind-business skeptics also sometimes claim turbines get installed more for the sake of
appearance than for their economic benefits. At least for small installations there seems to be some truth to this notion. One maker of kilowatt-scale machines admitted that businesses buying his equipment — typically car dealers and other retailers — weren't doing so primarily for the dollars-and-cents return. For these establishments, the pay-back period of about four years wasn't as much a selling point as were the green credentials that came with a small wind turbine, he explained.
With these realities of the wind business in mind, I was surprised to find GE Wind giving away a small chimp doll as a tchotchke. GE has its own interesting wind technology on the drawing board: a mammoth 10-MW off-shore turbine that doesn't use a gearbox. But in an industry sometimes slammed for making monkeys out of investors, a primate doll might not be the best choice for a give-away.