Sunday, September 04, 2005

WindLogics catches soaring demand for renewable energy systems

WindLogics catches soaring demand for renewable energy systems

by John Connelly

From an expanding perch in Grand Rapids, WindLogics is catching a piece of the nation’s soaring demand for renewable energy.

The St. Paul-based company is an anchor tenant at Itasca Technology Exchange, an 18,000 square-foot incubator for high-tech businesses at Central Square Mall in Grand Rapids. WindLogics tracks, models and forecasts wind patterns and demand for its services is growing.

“We completed about 100 wind projects in 2004 and expect to triple that in 2005,” said Lee Alnes, vice president of marketing. “We’ve also doubled the Grand Rapids staff in the past year.”

The WindLogics team of five in Grand Rapids provides scientific review, research and development. It includes Dennis Moon, the company’s chief scientist, two other doctoral scientists, a physicist and an intern from Itasca Community College. Moon plans to hire an additional scientist. The balance of the company’s payroll of 29 employees produce software in St. Paul.

WindLogics was founded in 1989 as Software Solutions and Environmental Services Co. (SSESCO). It produces software products and services for sophisticated modeling, computer visualization and data analysis solutions in environmental and meteorological markets. Along the way the company has helped the U.S. Army implement a mobile system that makes short-term and location-specific weather predictions; developed a similar, stationary system for the Israeli Air Force; and helped the state of North Dakota analyze the wind’s impact on pollution transport.

More recently, WindLogics has helped Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power pursue wind energy development plans, and is the lead candidate to help the state of Minnesota fulfill its goal of generating 20 percent of its electrical demand using wind.

In 1999, installed wind energy capacity in the United States was just 2,511 megawatts, according to the American Wind Energy Association, a Washington, D.C. trade group. “

Overall, the industry’s goal for growth is 100,000 megawatts by 2020,” said spokeswoman Christine Real de Azua. “Such capacity could generate 6 percent of the United States’ demand for electricity.”

That industry goal got a major boost from the federal energy legislation signed in early August by President Bush that extends a wind energy production tax credit through 2007.

In 2002, Moon attended the wind association’s annual trade show in Portland, OR. It had doubled in size and Moon and a fellow WindLogics employee attending the show smelled significant potential in the wind industry.

“When we returned to Minnesota, we made a case to the rest of the company that we should begin looking for business within the wind industry,” Moon said. “By August of that year, we had taken on our first project.”

Today, WindLogics provides three main products to its wind business clients.

• Wind assessment uses WindLogics data archives and models to assess wind patterns at a particular location.

• Wind forecasting makes short-term predictions about wind, enabling groups like utility operations to trade power.

• Utility-scale wind integration studies help major utilities understand how to integrate wind power into their systems.

In general, WindLogics products help financial institutions, wind developers, electric utilities, government agencies, wind farm operators, construction companies, landowners, energy traders and turbine manufacturers assess the long-term financial risk associated with wind energy development.

“At the moment, we’re backed up by eight to 10 projects,” Moon said. “The growth is great, because it has really helped WindLogics take control of its future.”

Real de Azua of the Wind Association said wind farms will produce more than 17.7 billion kilowatt hours of energy this year, enough electricity to serve more than 1.6 million households. Last year wind energy capacity grew to 6,740 megawatts, and an additional 2,500 megawatts of capacity - reflecting a $2.5 billion investment - will come on line this year, she said.

In both 2006 and 2007, additional 2,000 megawatt increments are expected as a result of the federal energy legislation. Minnesota already is a big player in the wind business. Only California, Texas and Iowa can generate more megawatts using wind.

Minnesota has a total capacity of 615 megawatts, which meets 2.6 percent of the state’s annual electricity needs. By 2010 to 2015, proponents hope the share produced by wind energy will grow to at least 10 percent.

Wisconsin also is far ahead of other states, with 53 megawatts installed and another 414 megawatts planned for the next two years.

“The advantage of wind energy is that it utilizes a long-term and predictable resource, the price of which never goes up,” said Michael Noble, executive director of Minnesotans for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ME3). “It’s also a huge economic stimulus in terms of jobs, manufacturing and heavy industry. Best of all, there’s no pollution.”

At the national level, the additional 2,500 megawatt capacity installed this year means $3 billion in investment and an estimated 10,000 new job-years, the equivalent of 10,000 one-year jobs.

Companies like WindLogics are critical to continued growth of the industry, Noble said.

“WindLogics has been internationally recognized for its leadership in modeling and wind data, and it’s the kind of smart and high-tech company that the industry needs,” he said. “A wide range of groups involved in the industry find significant value in their products.”

Recently, WindLogics helped Xcel Energy in Minneapolis figure out how to add 1,500 megawatts of wind power to its system at no cost to rate payers. In May, WindLogics announced it was beginning work with Xcel to develop a utility-scale wind forecast system.

“The goal of this research and development project is to define, design, build and demonstrate a complete wind power forecasting system for use by other Xcel system operators,” said Mark Ahlstrom, WindLogics chief executive. “System operators and energy traders will be able to more accurately project energy needs and plan appropriately to ensure uninterrupted power supply.”

The company also is helping Minnesota Power add wind energy to its system.

“Since we are venturing into wind energy area, we thought it made sense to get a better handle on the wind resources in North Dakota and Minnesota,” said Paul Johnson, the utility’s project leader. “WindLogics is helping us climb the learning curve so we use wind as effectively as possible in the future.”

The Duluth utility is purchasing 50 megawatts of wind power from a new wind generation project slated near Center, ND. It’s also actively pursuing proposals for a second wind farm to be located on the Iron Range.

“This seems to be a great time to be in the wind business,” said Moon at WindLogics in Grand Rapids. “I think everybody is really beginning to see it as a cost-effective and highly viable form of energy.”

John Connelly is a Grand Rapids freelance writer.

Useful Links:


Xcel Energy