GE last month celebrated its 20,000th wind turbine installation, a gargantuan achievement given that the U.S. power generation giant only stepped into the sector in 2002 when it purchased the wind power assets from the then recently bankrupted Enron.
In many ways, GE's meteoric rise tracks the growth of the global industry. From a cumulative global capacity of 31.1 GW globally, the U.S. and China each hit the 50 GW milestone this year, and Europe's installed capacity reached 100 GW.
"Ten years ago, we had 2,000 units across the globe; today we have over 20,000 units. It's [changed] from being a very small part of power generation installs over the last four years," said Matt Guyette, Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer for GE Wind.
The U.S. wind industry has added more than 35% of all new generating capacity over the past five years, second only to natural gas, and more than nuclear and coal combined, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
U.S. wind generation increased 27% last year and the figure is likely to be high for 2012, as the first three quarters saw a recordbreaking 4,728 MW installed.
"Wind performance over the last decade has been greater than we expected," said Guyette. "We certainly had high expectations, but we didn't expect that in the U.S., wind would be the number-one power generation technology installed in this country this year. Ten years ago, we didn't expect it to be that big."
PTC Expiration Dramatically Changes the Outlook
But the U.S. wind industry is heading toward a cliff in 2013 when the critical Production Tax Credit expires. First introduced in 1992, the PTC gives a credit of 2.2¢ per kWh for a wind facility's first ten years of operation. But each of the three times the PTC has been allowed to expire, the U.S. wind industry has collapsed.
AWEA estimates that 37,000 jobs are at risk, and the trickle is already beginning to turn into a flood of job losses.
"This uncertainty period has made it hard on our customers and hard on us," said Guyette. "But we do expect to get through and we do expect this to be a vibrant market in the future, not only in the U.S., but also globally."
Wind advocates anticipate that the PTC will be renewed for 2013 before the end of this year, with hopes pinned most firmly on an amendment authored by Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa in August, and passed with bipartisan support by the Senate Finance Committee.
"We believe we'll get past this PTC impasse, but it is challenging, and we're going to see a drop-off because of how late it is in the game for the extension," he said, adding, "Everyone in the industry would have preferred to see it sooner rather than later. But we did not expect it until after the election. We're at that point now, so we do have high hopes and expectations of the passage."
A one-year extension is estimated to cost the U.S. taxpayer $12B over ten years. But the industry agrees that the PTC should not last forever, and that the technology can soon stand on its own two feet. Over the last twenty years, the cost of generating electricity from wind has dropped by 80%, and recent research suggests new installations in good locations can generate electricity at rates as low as 5¢ per kWh.
"Today, wind can compete and be cost-effective against everything except for natural gas, only because it is so inexpensive in the U.S. Like all fossil fuels we will see the costs go up and down over time. Ten years ago or five years ago, nobody expected natural gas to go under $3. The expectation is that over the next 5-10 years you're going to continue to see cycling of natural gas pricing which helps a technology like wind that gives you a fixed cost of energy for the next 20-25 years once you put it in the ground," Guyette said
GE will install more than 3,000 wind turbines around the world this year. GE turbines dominate at home with a market share of 40%, but globally its position has slipped to that of the seventh-ranked manufacturer, in part because of Chinese companies. Meanwhile, GE hopes for a toehold in China's market via its joint venture with Hanergy.
"We have to make sure we're very locally tied to make sure we understand the uniqueness of the market and that we have the ability to compete in regions where a Western company may not be able to compete. But China is a top market."
GE also won approximately 20 percent of all the auctions in the last three years in Latin America. Offshore holds great potential in some regions, but only one of GE's 20,000 wind turbines is located offshore, a 4MW turbine that is currently being tested as a pilot demonstration.
The U.K.'s energy bill represents an opportunity for GE in offshore wind, but only if the price is right, said Guyette.
"The challenge for us has been in the offshore market -- does it make economic sense for our customers to install it?" he said. "That's the same challenge in the U.K. and globally. Every quarter, you see write-offs because of offshore delays."
Agility and nimbleness will be vital to survival in this industry where even the global leader, Vestas, a single-technology player, is struggling to maintain momentum. GE will be able to draw strength from its sheer scale and diversity -- boosted by a booming business in gas-fired turbines.
"The environment is challenging," said Guyette. "Only the strong can survive. We'll see that from a manufacturers' perspective and supplier perspective. It happens in all industries. When you grow and shrink over and over again, you really have to be a world-leading company to be able to live through those cycles. That's one of the reasons why GE got into the wind space in the first place."