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Wind Power

By Joan Killough-Miller, Photography by Patrick O’Connor and courtesy of Vestas Wind Systems A/S

If the issue is how to ease global warming and decrease oil depletion, the answer, says Paul Gaynor ’87, may be blowin’ in the wind.

Paul Gaynor is blunt about the biggest stumbling block he faces as a wind farm developer. “People don’t want to look at them,” he admits. “It’s not that they don’t believe that wind energy is cost effective or that it’s not technologically sound. I don’t think you’re going to find anyone in America who says we should increase our dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Among those who object, the reaction is 99 percent visual.”

On remote hillsides, wind turbine generators stand out from the landscape as significant pieces of infrastructure. “That’s why,” Gaynor says, “we have to get it right.”

As president and CEO of UPC Wind Management, located in Newton, Mass., Gaynor was tapped to bring the success of the parent company, UPC Group, to North America. In Europe and North Africa, UPC affiliates—including Italian Vento Power Corporation—have raised over $900 million in financing and installed some 900 utility-scale wind turbine generators (WTGs), with a total capacity of more than 635 megawatts. UPC subsidiary companies, positioned across the United States and in Toronto, are currently pursing some 2,000 megawatts in projects from Maine to Maui.

Gaynor may be a newcomer to wind energy, but he’s been part of the power business since he graduated from WPI with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He started out in sales, with General Electric’s gas and steam turbine business, then earned an MBA at the University of Chicago and moved into the finance side of the industry. He spent five years in Singapore with GE Capital’s energy finance business, where he was involved in some of the region’s landmark power transactions. He moved to London as CFO of an emerging market pipeline development subsidiary owned by GE Capital and Bechtel, then returned to Singapore as group CFO for Singapore Power Ltd., the country’s national utility.

After 10 years abroad, Gaynor came back to the United States to join Noble Power, a private-equity-backed power plant acquisition company. When a call came from a former colleague, he was intrigued by the opportunity to join UPC. Gaynor says he enjoys getting involved with startups and building businesses. “Wind is a great business to be in,” he says, “because it’s such an untapped part of the U.S. and Canadian energy system. It’s the only part of the power industry that has any real growth potential for the coming decades.”

As the price of fossil fuels rises and their environmental toll mounts, Gaynor says that wind power becomes more competitive—and attractive—to communities across the nation. “Global warming, oil depletion—these are real issues,” he explains. “We may not realize the effects in our lifetime, but our children and grandchildren will. A single wind farm, even a relatively large one, isn’t going to make the skies go from gray to blue. But if we add them in the right spots throughout the electrical grid all around the country, it will add up and it will make a difference for generations to come.”

Hawaiians say aloha to wind energy

Wind Power Density of Maui County at 50 Meters

In Hawaii—where there are no fossil fuel resources, and 90 percent of the state’s energy consumption must be imported—the decisions become more immediate. Last year, the Hawaiian legislature enacted a Renewable Portfolio Standard requiring that by 2020, 20 percent of electricity sold needs to be generated from renewable sources. [As of last year, 18 states plus the District of Columbia had passed similar legislation.]

“Hawaii has one of the best wind resources in the country, but the state hasn’t been using the resource to its fullest potential,” says Gaynor. “It’s a situation where wind is extremely competitive, compared to conventional power sources. It makes sense for consumers, it makes sense for the state, and it has environmental benefits.”

In March, Gaynor secured financing for a $70 million project on the island of Maui. [The project is a joint venture with Makani Nui Associates, which owns 49 percent.] The 30-megawatt wind farm at Kaheawa Pastures will be Hawaii’s first utility-scale project to be put into service since the 1980s. Plans call for 20 towers, 180 feet tall, with 1.5-megawatt General Electric turbines. Construction is expected to begin this summer, and the project should be completed by the first quarter of 2006. When operational, the wind farm will supply up to 9 percent of demand to customers of Maui Electric Company.

The Kaheawa Pastures site is situated on state conservation land, between Ma’aleaea and Olowalu, at elevations ranging from 2,000 to 3,000 feet. Gaynor describes the spot with elation, as he points to it on a wind resource map (opposite page) that shows where strong trade winds are squeezed between the West Maui Mountains and the Haleakala volcano. He is equally enthusiastic about the natural beauty of the site. “In the morning,” he says, almost reverently, “when the sun is rising, you can see over to the big island. It’s virgin land, with nothing but a few Jeep trails. It is absolutely gorgeous.”

Why, then, add a wind farm?

“Hawaii had to make a choice,” he answers. “On Maui, consumers pay about 25 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity.” [Retail rates in Hawaii are about twice the national average.] According to reports by the Hawaii Wind Working Group, the project was welcomed by residents: at hearings held by the Board of Land and Natural Resources in the early stages of the project, there was no opposing testimony from the homeowner, environmental, and native Hawaiian associations present.

“They want us to do this,” says Gaynor. “They’re saying, ‘I would rather look at wind turbines than have my kids unable to afford electricity and have to deal with the effects of global warming.’ They understand that it’s not a panacea but a piece of the solution toward becoming more energy efficient and less dependent on foreign oil. But there aren’t enough Hawaiis out there. That’s why we have to proceed slowly and surely.”

The eastern outlook

Back on the East Coast, UPC’s major focus includes more than a half dozen active developments in New England and New York. UPC has added a West Coast presence, in San Diego.

While New Englanders debate the aesthetic impact of a proposed offshore project on Nantucket Sound, Gaynor—who owns a home on Nantucket—points out the aging power plants that dot the New England coastline. “People are so used to looking at those old power plants that they don’t even think about them,” he says. “Would you rather see more of those dirty coal and oil plants spewing smoke, or would you rather look at wind turbines, which produce clean power?” Noting the emissions from Cape Cod’s Canal Power Station, Gaynor suggests, “Next time you drive over the Sagamore Bridge, take a look to the east. I’d rather look at an offshore wind farm than look at that power plant for the next 20 years.”

With so few WTGs operational in the northeast, “98 percent of the population in New England and New York haven’t seen a wind turbine,” he points out. “There’s nothing like actually driving up to one and touching it. It’s an educational process. Most people say, ‘This isn’t so bad.’ They realize they don’t have to cover their ears.”

Much of the battle over WTGs lies in getting beyond the misconceptions that stem from the experimental wind farms of the 1980s, which did not live up to the hype they generated. Turbine technology has come a long way, and today’s WTGs are quieter and more efficient. Important lessons have been learned about proper siting, as well. “We spend an enormous amount of time researching and picking our spots,” Gaynor says. “We, as developers, must be responsible. More important, we as consumers have to start making some choices—there’s too much at risk to get this wrong.”

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Last modified: Aug 25, 2005, 13:41 EDT
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