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Wind turbines in short supply

Demand for wind power is growing, but manufacturers of turbines can't keep up.

Want some turbines to build a wind power park? Get in line.

High demand--coupled with the engineering challenges of building turbines that can extract hundreds of kilowatts or megawatts of power from the wind--has created a shortage. Wind park developers, thus, are being forced to jostle their plans and supply line relationships to keep projects on track.

The town of Hull, Mass. installed wind turbines last year. This is their medium-size turbine, a Vestas V47 that can turn out 660 kilowatts of electricity. Martin Lamonica

If you order now, you might not get turbines until late 2009 or later.

"There has been a backlog for a significant period of time. The lead time is around a year to a year and a half," said Myke Clark, vice president for policy at Finavera, which develops wind parks and wave energy parks. "It is a pretty significant problem for developers to find turbines."

Finavera has avoided much of the pain, he added, through equipment acquisition strategies and close relationships with suppliers.

The shortage may also have been a factor in the purchase of Airtricity, which operates wind parks, for $2.7 billion earlier this year by Scottish and Southern Energy, some have speculated. Airtricity had committed contracts for turbines. The company's main operations are in Europe but it is expanding to North America and Europe.

The solar industry has been struggling with shortages since 2004 when the German government beefed up subsidies. Growing demand in Spain, California, and Canada has exacerbated the problem.

You can look at the situation from both a pessimistic and an optimistic perspective. On the down side, the shortage puts a cap on the growth of wind power, which is one of the more cost-effective sources of renewable energy. There are a limited number of manufacturers of large turbines--General Electric, Vestas, etc.--so the picture won't change quickly. These things are big (the span of the blades can be larger than the wingspan of a 747) so it's not a manufacturing task for the lighthearted. Some start-ups are coming out with small turbines for individual buildings, but it represents a sliver of the market.

On the positive side, the shortage means demand is high. As a result, investors seem to have high confidence in wind.

"It is easy to get financing. It is difficult to get turbines because there is such a demand for them, so there is a big delay for that," Graham Brennan, program manager for renewable-energy research and development at Sustainable Energy Ireland, the government's green-technology arm, said in a recent interview.

On the other hand, the U.S. is contemplating letting several alternative energy incentives and tax credits lapse. That could cut the shortage, at least in the U.S. way back, said one analyst.