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Mexico wind project gets Obama seal of approval

David Hopwood

Setting up operations in a new country is always a risk, especially in the emerging markets. Mexico, in Latin America, is one such market, but an increasing number of companies are now active there – including EDF Energy and Clipper Windpower.

Building a wind farm in a new country with relatively little exposure to the wind power industry is not for the faint hearted. Doing so means dealing with a different business climate, a new culture, and getting to grips with an unfamiliar (and potentially unforgiving) regulatory environment – all at the same time.

Then let's not forget the need for recruitment of local personnel, intensive training of technicians, and streamlining of logistics supply lines into the country. And despite the challenges associated with energy projects in emerging markets, developers are unlikely to get much leeway when it comes to meeting project timelines.

One example of a region where project development is especially tough is Latin America. In total Latin America spans over 21,000,000 km2 and is home to a wide range of environments, many of which are ideal for renewable energy production. From the winds of southern Patagonia to Pacific winds hitting Oaxaca in Mexico, the potential for wind power is vast. But in terms of installed capacity, the numbers are still very small.

The region's total installed capacity at the end of 2009 was only 1,072 MW. By the end of 2010, the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) predicted that the continent's installed capacity could reach 2 GW (advanced scenario). The organisation also believes that – with favourable conditions, again, it's advanced scenario – this could rise to 40 GW by 2020, and 90 GW by 2030 (for more information see GWEC's Global Wind Energy Outlook 2010).

And despite major regional diversity, there does appear to be a growing will among Latin American policy makers and business leaders to make countries in the region a much more attractive proposition for renewable energy in general. Wind power in particular has the advantage that it's a good fit for hydropower – Latin America's primary electrical generation method.

Mexico moving forward

Having the second-largest population in Latin America, Mexico is a natural industrial leader, and despite its fair share of challenges, the country has been responsible for the biggest leap in Latin American wind capacity in 2010. The Mexican Government is also now starting to get behind wind – having set a target of 2.5 GW of wind by 2012.

At the end of 2009, Mexico had installed 202 MW of wind power. The first half of 2010 saw another 300 MW installed. Rather than being fed into the grid though, almost all of this capacity is used on site by self-generators, being fed into large businesses and plants.

New projects underway

Look at some of the names targeting Mexico and this gives some indication of the country's potential. Spanish wind turbine maker Gamesa recently announced it will supply 324 MW to two projects in Oaxaca, an area popular with developers because winds there are strong for most of the year – with capacity factors as high as 40 per cent reportedly being achieved.

In fact some believe the area is one of the world's best wind resources with average wind speeds of 12 metres-per-second (m/s).

Oaxaca is situated in the narrowest part of Mexico, known as the Tehuantepec Isthmus, a flat area between two coastal mountain ranges that funnels the wind and keeps it strong for much of the year. According to the Mexican Wind Power Association, the region has more than 500 MW in place, around 500 MW in construction, and nearly 1.5 GW planned (source – Windpower Monthly, January 2010).

EDF, Clipper enter the fray

So, what are the pitfalls for developers wishing to take advantage of this emerging market?

A typical example of the Mexican model for wind development in Mexico is the 27 turbine, 67.5 MW La Mata-La Ventosa wind farm, named after two nearby towns, and situated in Oaxaca.

The wind farm is the result of collaboration between French utility EDF Energies Nouvelles (EDF EN) and US Clipper Windpower, which supplied its 2.5 MW Liberty turbines. It was developed and built by EDF EN's Mexican subsidiary Electrica del Valle de Mexico (EVM), along with Clipper. The electricity generated is fed to a number of stores owned by retailer Walmart Mexico. EDF EN has a 15-year electricity supply agreement with Walmart that meets ‘self-supply’ regulations in Mexico.

The La Mata-La Ventosa wind farm is the companies' first project in Mexico, and won the 2010 Deal of the Year award on behalf of the Export-Import Bank of the United States (the award, presented by President Obama was due to EDF EN securing American-built turbines from Clipper for the La Mata-La Ventosa site).

Operation and maintenance

Clipper, and EDF EN's US subsidiary, enXco, are responsible for operating and maintaining the wind farm. Clipper employs 13 staff on site, four of which are being groomed for another Clipper wind project at Pinoles in Mexico. Teams of two technicians work on the turbines as well as administrative, inventory and site supervision personnel. EDF EN also employs 9 people at or near the site. They leave the operation of the turbines to Clipper and focus on operating electrical substations, computer monitoring of power production, as well as security and maintenance of the substations.

“Once we saw that we needed to buy local, we found that most of our components were there to be had…”
- Aaron Moeller, Clipper

While the contract availability rate is 95%, the Clipper site reportedly averaged 96.1%.

The project's turbine – Liberty

La Mata-La Ventosa uses Clipper's Liberty 2.5 MW.

“We see the Liberty machine with its large-scale capacity and innovative improvements at the top of the scale in terms of industry technology advancement,” said David Corchia, CEO of EDF EN.

The turbine is different from traditional designs. Modern wind gearboxes, for example, typically use two-stage planetary and one parallel shaft stage with helical gears, which are attached to a single generator. But the expansion in size of the average turbine necessitates massive gear casings that stretch the capabilities of traditional manufacturers. This also places enormous loads on the bearings. As a result, the three-stage gearing concept suffers failures from excessive loads.

Clipper has refined a lightweight two-stage helical design, using four permanent magnet (PM) generators instead of the usual single-wound rotor-induction generator. This was then validated during testing at NREL, later evolving into the company's Liberty 2.5 MW turbine.

“Liberty's multiple-drive path design…decreases individual gearbox component loads, which reduces gearbox size and weight,” said Bob Thresher, director of NREL's National Wind Technology Center: “The new generators significantly reduce component mass by eliminating much of the copper that would be required for windings in the rotor. The machine will also take advantage of advanced feedback controls to reduce load excursions in turbulent wind conditions and optimise pitch schedules to reduce drive train loads and improve energy capture,” he adds.

Apart from reducing loads, this approach boosts turbine uptime. If one generator fails in a traditional turbine, everything shuts down and repairs can be costly due primarily to the high cost and potential lack of availability of industrial cranes. With four generators, one can be taken off line if there is a problem.

Clipper has also developed a way to improve the variable-speed technology used by many modern wind turbines. Variable speed designs maximise energy capture from the wind by continually adjusting the rotational speed of the blade to match prevailing wind conditions. It also harnesses the latest generation of transistors and switches to achieve full power conversion, which is more suited to modern grid requirements such as low voltage ride through and grid stabilisation – at half the cost of full speed conversion. Clipper has accumulated many patents in this area.

This all adds up to weight reduction. Many modern gearboxes in MW-scale wind turbines weigh 50 to 70 tonnes. Liberty's gearbox weighs in at only 36 tonnes, including gearbox, brakes and housing.

Overcoming lack of expertise

One of the problems that Clipper ran into was lack of educational resources in the south of Mexico. While Oaxaca has some educational colleges, there is a general lack of trade schools and no pipeline of graduates already versed in wind industry technology.

The company targeted graduates with a technical degree – such as electromechanical and industrial engineering.

“We focused on hiring locals from the towns of La Mata and La Ventosa,” said Clipper's Aaron Moeller, the company's EDF fleet manager, “and this willingness to hire from the vicinity created much goodwill”.

Training covered all aspects of turbine maintenance, with a heavy emphasis on safety practices. “Experienced technicians apprenticed our staff on standard maintenance and day-to-day operations,” said Moeller. “Since COD, they have remained on site to ensure our local teams know what they're doing.” To overcome the language barrier, Clipper established an ‘English-as-a-Second-Language’ program for its Mexican employees after work.

The next phase will be to pull out the American technicians, and let the Mexican team “stand on its own feet”.

Investing in the region

One other problem the project faced was the supply lines into Mexico. Clipper initially shipped replacement parts and components from the USA. However, that incurred higher taxes as well as transportation costs. And delays were commonplace.

In fact Mexico has a large and sophisticated supplier base of its own, and many of the wind farm's routine supplies are available locally, reducing costs and speeding up deliveries.

“We realised that we need[ed] to foster relationships with Mexican vendors,” said Moeller. “Once we saw that we needed to buy local, we found that most of our components were there to be had.”

Moving forward

Clipper has now established a long-term agreement with EDF EN's Mexican subsidiary for the supply of Liberty 2.5 MW wind turbines for more EDF EN projects in Mexico in the coming years.

Currently, Clipper is supplying wind turbines to Penoles in Oaxaca – which will provide power to a mining company. 20 Liberty turbines are currently being erected at the site.

“The project, Fuerza Eolica del Istmo, is scheduled to be completed in early 2011,” believes Moeller.

All in all, he believes that the La Mata-La Ventosa project has been invaluable as a way of learning about moving into an unfamiliar market: “This is a great platform for us to understand our international expansion needs,” he concludes: “It has enabled us to see where we need to spend time and energy.”

Note: This version was adapted from an article by Joe Zwers, who is a freelance writer based in Glendale, California – focusing on business and technology.


David Hopwood is the Editor of Renewable Energy Focus.

Renewable Energy Focus, Volume 12, Issue 1, January-February 2011, Pages 10-12

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