There they go again. As much as top elected officials in Texas rant against renewable energy, the state is a clean power pace-setter. The latest example is a forthcoming fleet of trucks bearing new spiral-welding technology that can lower the cost of wind turbine towers and raise the height, with widespread implications for states in the US Southeast and elsewhere.
Taller Wind Turbine Towers & The US Southeast
To be clear, “Southeast” has political implications in terms of Republican policy making, but it is not a US Census designation. When the US Geological Survey aligns its map with the Department of the Interior, one result is a region labeled “Southeast” that includes Texas along with parts of Illinois and Iowa, though most people would probably park those three states elsewhere.
Our friends over at Wikipedia came up with a list of Southeastern states that includes Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. That suits our purposes because it overlaps almost perfectly with a map of wind resources developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
The NREL map depicts a long patch of pale blue crawling up from the tip of Florida, indicating relatively low onshore wind speeds at a height of 100 meters above the surface throughout the Southeast.
Under these conditions, it is a stretch to build cost-effective onshore wind farms in most parts of the Southeast. Republican-led policies aimed at thwarting renewable energy development are also at work, but the lack of appropriate technology is also behind the Southeast’s poor showing in state-by-state wind power rankings.
Taller Wind Turbine Towers For The US Southeast
The US Department of Energy has been shopping around for taller, less expensive wind turbine towers and longer blades to go with them, which would tap into stronger, more efficient wind speeds well above 100 meters.
The sticky wicket is transporting bigger components around the nation’s rail and highway systems without bumping into bridges, overpasses, sharp turns, and other obstacles.
Back in 2014 the Energy Department selected the Boston-based startup Keystone Tower Systems to help solve the problem. It’s been a few years, but they are satisfied with the results.
“With more than $7 million from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Keystone Tower Systems has developed a solution: a spiral-welding technique, borrowed from the steel-pipeline industry, to build some of the largest turbine towers on the market,” the Energy Department observed in a recap of the R&D project last year.
In contrast to conventional wind turbine tower construction, spiral welding involves flat steel plates of only a few meters wide. It also reduces the amount of steel needed.
“The technique requires only one machine to construct a tower section, and it can produce towers up to twice as tall and 10 times faster than conventional towers,” the Energy Department added.
To guild the low cost wind turbine lily, spiral-welded towers can be manufactured on site. That opens up more locations for wind development that would otherwise be cut off by transportation obstacles.
The Keystone Spiral-Welding Tower Trucks Are Coming
Keystone was founded as an MIT spinoff in 2010. It first sailed across the CleanTechnica radar in 2015, when we took note of the Energy Department’s search for longer blades.
“Last fall the Energy Department tapped Keystone Towers of Boston for something called an ‘on-site spiral welding system,’ which will reduce or outright eliminate the need for costly, special transportation arrangements,” we noted.
What we missed was this thing about sending mobile turbine tower factories out across the country, though the US Department of Agriculture did not. They took a close look at the idea back in 2014. “Across the US, tall towers can double the amount of land area available for economic wind development,” USDA noted.
“A single machine will use steel shipped flat to the site to complete the joining, rolling, fit-up, welding, and severing for continuous production of tapered steel tower shells,” Keystone explained back in 2021.
Keystone also spilled the beans in a press release last week, in which it took note of its first factory in Pampa, Texas.
“While this first factory is in a fixed location, Keystone is also developing mobile factories capable of building taller towers directly at the wind site,” they said.
A Little ESG Help From Some Friends
The idea that Texas will send a fleet of wind turbine tower trucks fanning out across the country to kill off coal, oil, and natural gas is consistent with the state’s current status as a leader of the US wind industry. However, it does conflict with the state’s longstanding position as a top US oil and gas producer.
That’s where things get interesting, because Texas has become one of the epicenters of the movement to prevent state pension funds from doing business with investment firms that promote corporate ESG (environment, social, governance) goals.
Texas Governor Gregg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton of Texas are among elected officials in almost almost two dozen states that have been slinging a hash of anti-ESG rhetoric and legislative activity around, despite a surge of clean tech activity in their own states.
The Woke Genie Has Already Left The Bottle
In particular, a recently enacted anti-ESG law in Texas, SB 13, is transparently intended to protect fossil energy producers.
So far, though, SB 13 has only hurt municipal taxpayers. For that matter, SB 13 would have limited, if any, impact on clean tech innovation.
In Keystone’s case, the cat was already out of the bag. Funding from the US Department of Energy helped Keystone move its machinery from the work table to a full scale factory before SB 13 became law. The company has also gotten a little help from other friends.
One is the GE Renewable Energy branch of GE, which supplied its 2.8 megawatt wind turbine to cap off the construction of Keystone’s first commercial scale wind turbine tower last week.
“The installation is the result of a multi-year collaboration between Keystone and GE to design and produce spiral-welded towers for GE wind turbines,” Keystone explained.
Another friend is the global steelmaking giant Arcelor Mittal, which is a lead backer of the Belgian venture capital fund Finindus. The firm has a financial stake in Keystone, in support of its mission to “reduce the environmental footprint” of industrial processes and supply chains around the world.
In 2017, Finindus noted that two other leading Keystone investors have roots in the ESG movement: the Colorado Impact Fund, which aims for “positive community impact” along with healthy returns, and Zoma Capital, a family firm that “invests in a broad range of market-based sustainable solutions addressing environmental and social problems.”
Keystone’s list of friends also includes stakeholders in the fossil energy industry, which stand to gain new business as opportunities in the coal, oil, and gas fields fade away.
That includes NOV (National Oilwell Varco), a global legacy firm with 150 years worth of roots in fossil energy.
“The energy industry depends on our deep expertise and technology to continually improve oilfield operations and assist in efforts to advance the energy transition towards a more sustainable future,” NOV states on its website, and they are not kidding.
While keeping a close hand on its legacy business, NOV has compiled a long list of clean tech activities, one of which involved supporting the construction of the new Keystone tower factory in Texas. Apparently NOV is already anticipating global expansion.
“We look forward to helping Keystone in their efforts to enable cost-effective wind towers around the world,” said Clay Williams, the Chairman and CEO of NOV.
To ice the ESG cake, local media in Texas have taken note of the Keystone factory’s location on a former brownfield site that used to manufacture oil and gas drilling equipment. When fully up and running, the new factory is expected to create almost 200 jobs.
Local media also reported that Keystone “received a tax abatement from the Gray County Commissioners Court to let them invest in new buildings and equipment at a discounted property tax rate.”
TV new station KDFA-10 cited Gray County Judge Chris Porter, who explained that “the oil industry has driven Gray county and Pampa for a long time, and we’re excited to have this wind energy project here to diversify our economy.”
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Image (cropped): Spiral welding system for wind turbine tower manufacturing courtesy of Keystone Energy Systems.
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