For the last 20 years the wind power market in the United States was mostly confined to California, where wind farms in the Mojave region are relatively common. But today the giant white pinwheels are sprouting up all over the country, especially in the nation's midsection, where wind farm growth has catapulted. In the last two years more than 2,000 megawatts of capacity (enough to serve more than 600,000 average American homes) was installed in the US.

And where there are wind farms, there are cranes, to erect the turbines and help maintain them–replacing blades and servicing mechanisms. “A lot of people are banking on wind farm work,” says David Dieleman, equipment manager for Dielco Crane Service in Las Vegas. “We've been working in the wind market since the 1980s in California. We started there, but in the last year or so we've done jobs in Colorado and Texas. There's a lot of work in wind power.”

According to the American Wind Energy Association, the outlook for wind power development over the next year is good, with forecasts of up to 2,500 megawatts of capacity being installed during 2005. With the extension by Congress in July of the wind energy production tax credit (PTC) through the end of 2007, AWEA estimates that the US will see 2,000 MW or more capacity added in 2006 and the same again in 2007.

While dozens of wind farm projects are planned throughout the US, the largest actually underway include the Hopkins Ridge Wind Power Project in Columbia County, WA with 83 turbines; the Kumeyaay Wind Power Project in San Diego, CA with 25 turbines; the Trimont Area Wind Farm in Martin and Jackson Counties, MN with 67 turbines; the Weatherford Wind Energy Center in Weatherford, OK with 98 turbines; the Ainsworth Wind Energy facility near Ainsworth, NE with 36 turbines; the Maple Ridge Wind Farm in Lewis County, NY with 120 turbines; and the San Juan Mesa Wind Power Project near Elida, NM with 120 turbines.

The largest state for wind power development, however, is Texas, where some 437 turbines have been, or will be, erected in 2005, in or near Sweetwater, Taylor County, and in Cottonwood Creek, and Buffalo Gap near Abilene.

Th us far, most of the turbines being erected in the US are between 1 and 2 MW, although experts in the industry expect a trend in larger units over the next few years.

Tax Boost

Rick Sigel, president of New Mexico–based Crane Services, says his company has been servicing the wind power sector for more than a decade. He was pleased to see the Energy Bill provisions that extend the tax credit for wind power development, believing the tax incentive will mean a boost in new projects, which in turn means more business for crane manufacturers, owners and operators.

Crane Services has several cranes working on wind farms. “The bulk of our work has been in the Southwest,” Sigel explains, “Wind power has been a significant part of our business.” For the most part, Crane Services uses a 300 ton lattice crawler for erecting wind turbines, specifically a Manitowoc 2250 with lufer. “We are considering buying a bigger crane because they keep building bigger and higher towers,” he said.

Dieleman says Dielco has had two Manitowoc 2250s erecting turbines, plus four or five smaller cranes on wind farm maintenance. For the taller turbines to be erected on a farm in Texas, Dielco brought in a Liebherr LR 1400. “Wind farm work is good duty for a crane,” he says, “You need a crane to put them up and then you need them to do the maintenance.”

Hard Work

In some locations wind turbine erection and maintenance puts heavy wear and tear on the lifting equipment. “It can be really hard on a crane,” Dieleman explains. “What is most difficult is that you have to walk them so much because they [the wind turbines] are so far apart. Th at's hard on the tracks and hard on the car body.”

With the steeper terrains in California and Colorado, placing turbines can be tedious. “We use dozers and loaders to pull the cranes up and down the hills,” Dieleman says. “You get into the mountains and it gets rough.” In Texas, however, many of the wind farms are being put on mesas, which are fat. “The walking is the problem in Texas,” Dieleman said. The wind farms in Iowa, Minnesota and Pennsylvania are also harder to get to than those in the South and West.

As turbines are getting larger and the component loads get bigger and heavier, installation becomes an increasingly specialized job, in terms of people and equipment and transport and erection. The increasingly complicated projects means contractors’ corresponding safety and experience of high level project management in handling heavy loads at height become even more important requirements.

For the most part, turbines being installed in the US are manufactured either by European companies Vestas and Gamesa or by US company GE Energy, which is still getting most of the contracts. But the reality is that wind power development is likely to continue for many years, as the US government continues to incentivize this type of energy development.

In 2004, Spanish turbine manufacturer Gamesa announced plans to locate its US headquarters and a manufacturing plant in Pennsylvania. Gamesa's plans are an indication of the potential in the wind energy sector, especiallly wind turbines, in the country.

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