How Avangrid is revolutionising US wind energyn
Last summer, construction began on the first utility-scale wind farm in North Carolina, Avangrid Renewables’ Amazon Wind Farm US East, aka Desert Wind, located across a rural section of the state’s northeastern Perquimans and Pasquotank Counties. Once completed, the wind farm will boast 104 turbines, a capacity of 208MW and one very famous client: Amazon Web Services.
“It’s one of our first large projects for somebody other than a traditional utility or municipality,” said Erik Lallum, Avangrid Renewables’ Vice President of Engineering and Construction. “That opportunity is what has helped us grow this North Carolina project from a development opportunity to a construction project that will be delivering MW of electricity by the end of the year.”
Avangrid Renewables, based in Portland, Oregon, is currently the second-largest provider of clean energy in the US. Over the course of the last decade, it has been transformed from a non-regulated subsidiary of ScottishPower to the innovative, US renewable energy division of one of Europe’s biggest utilities.
Lallum began his career at the company in 2005, when it was still known as PPM Energy and had yet to crack the 1000MW of renewable energy milestone. When Iberdrola — Spain’s largest energy group and a global leader in wind energy — purchased PPM’s parent company, ScottishPower, in 2007, Lallum was tasked with building a project management organization for the new entity. And a major growth period ensued. Today, the company owns approximately 6000MW of wind and solar generation and has been rebranded as Avangrid Renewables, a non-regulated entity of the publicly traded Avangrid (AGR).
“We had multifunctional energy development capability on the West Coast in Portland, Oregon,” Lallum says. “I was part of that in the project management group so when Iberdrola purchased us, they asked me to move to the East Coast to duplicate the model that we had developed under PPM Energy. So I moved out to the East Coast, began hiring project managers and engineers and built a very capable project organization.”
At first, the newly created Iberdrola Renewables proceeded with two parallel teams working on either side of the USA. As the organization matured through its peak growth period, however, Lallum saw an opportunity to merge the construction group with the engineering group in 2011.
“I brought the development support technical team together with the project management and construction team and made one integrated team to support development and manage the construction of our projects,” he explains. “Now we have a really seamless process that starts in development, advances through project approval and construction and allows us to deliver a project that has really had all of the right input from the very beginning.”
When Avangrid Renewables sets about constructing a clean energy project — be it a solar park or a wind farm — ensuring quality and durability is of paramount importance.
“We are a developer who is also a long term owner-operator,” says Lallum. “The quality of projects, and what goes into projects, from development through construction, is very important to us so that we have a reliable project for many years after construction.”
Currently, Lallum and his unified team are overseeing the construction of two major wind farms: the Amazon Wind Farm U.S. East and New Mexico’s ‘El Cabo’. The latter is located in Torrance County, New Mexico, roughly 60 miles from the state capital, Albuquerque, and will produce more than 298MW of wind power once it is constructed and operating. El Cabo will feature up to 142 Gamesa G114 2.1MW turbines and produce enough energy to power at least 75,000 homes annually. Earlier this year, it was announced that the energy generated at the wind farm will be supplied exclusively to a California utility, Southern California Edison.
“We will have back feed power to the plant and begin commissioning turbines in May of 2017 in order to meet New Mexico tax incentive requirements", Lallum says. “And then the entire project will be completed prior to the end of the year.
Besides these two projects, Lallum indicated his team will be starting construction on 3 more projects yet this year. “It feels good to be on a growth trajectory again and my team is ready and very capable of delivering safe, quality projects.”
However, building a wind farm is not as easy as simply showing up on a suitable plot of land and attaching rotor blades to towers. Avangrid Renewables must select its sites based on market need — and contend with the court of public opinion from there.
“We select our sites for a couple of reasons,” Lallum explains. “We start with guidance from our energy management team. It is this team that provides our view of the market and through interface with existing and potential customers, guides our development efforts where we see the greatest opportunity and market need.”
“Beyond that, we look to combine the market opportunities where we have development pipeline and favorable policy to support our projects. I should also note that while we maintain the capability to self-develop greenfield projects from our development pipeline, we can also step into projects at any phase of development.”
Historically, some populations have been opposed to the construction of wind farms in their communities — with some citing noise pollution and aesthetic concerns as reasons to protest the installation of turbines. As a result, Avangrid Renewables must set about conducting significant public consultation before work can commence on any new wind project
“In development, we try to be transparent with communities by hosting open houses, preparing simulations and listening to the concerns of local communities.”
Lallum reports that both Desert Wind and El Cabo were met with “overwhelming” community support in their early stages, and with these projects scheduled for completion in 2016 and 2017 respectively, he is turning his gaze toward the future.
“Our plan is to develop and build approximately 1500 megawatts by 2020,” he says. “With that said, we feel this is our base plan and we're exploring ways to expand that. It truly is an exciting time for our industry and company.”
With renewables finally starting to take a firm foothold in the US energy market, Lallum is confident that innovations in clean energy will continue to deliver cost competitiveness and be a viable mainstream energy source. He speaks of battery storage as a key technology still in its infancy, but with potential to address a number of grid stability concerns, including mitigating the intermittency of renewables. Lallum also stresses that wind turbines themselves are continuing to improve in efficiency and cost. With that said, he believes the current technology to watch is PV solar, where costs continue to decline and efficiency continues to improve. For utility scale, this technology is headed to less than $1.00 per watt DC all-in, which makes solar very attractive in a number of markets and locations.
“In wind, we're going to continue to see taller towers and larger rotors. Additionally, turbine manufacturers are delivering new turbine control solutions leading to greater output on an individual turbine basis, and more efficient ways in which to operate these turbines. This is what is driving the next phase of growth in wind.”
As it stands, the demand for power will continue to rise on a global scale — as will concerns about reducing carbon emissions. Avangrid Renewables operates, and thrives, at the intersection of energy needs and environmental concerns.
“The point is: people are very concerned about climate change, not just in the US, but globally,” Lallum says. “At Avangrid Renewables, we want to be part of the solution. We strive to be the cleanest IPP in the US and are committed to combatting climate change. We believe that renewable energy is the right way to do this.”