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Fluttering Flags, Can-can, & the Big Men of Wind Energy

Article by: Paul Gipe

No. That title isn’t click bate. Long ago, in a land far away, I had to give a speech on the future of wind energy. That’s not noteworthy; I do it all the time. What was noteworthy, though, was that I had to compete with can-can dancers. If this was fiction, no one would believe it.

In 1996 I participated in the dedication of Europe’s largest wind power plant. The project was located near Eemsmond in the far northeastern corner of the Netherlands.

The dedication was a lavish affair with an expensive dinner in Groningen’s modern art museum, a chorus line of scantily clad women dancing a provocative can-can, a private, men-only boat ride with representatives of the Dutch Queen, and, to top it all off, an after-dinner cognac with fine cigars. The event cost the sponsoring utility nearly $300,000 and marked the end of Kenetech—at the time the world’s largest wind power company—and probably sealed the fate of the utility as well.

Several of the day’s activities still stand out in my memory. The can-can tops the list. The costumes they wore mixed Dutch and American flags to symbolize the joint venture between Kenetech, an American company, and Edon, a Dutch utility.

I remember the latter part well. I was in the front row with a fine view—with my wife Nancy. It was embarrassing. I am not sure if it was embarrassing because Nancy was there with me, or if it was because the Dutch idea of acceptable entertainment was out of step with America’s view of how to treat women, or if it was because they misused the two national flags. I do remember the flags—and where they were displayed. And I do remember thinking, “They are professional dancers. This was no amateur troupe from a local high school.”

My job was to give a speech—for free—and hobnob with representatives of the Queen and the US embassy and, of course, executives from the two companies. In other words, I had to make small talk and smile a lot with people I don’t normally socialize with.

How I came to be there is one of those twists of fate that’s hard to visualize afterward. I had nothing but disdain for those who ran Kenetech—or US Windpower as it was known previously—they were the “smartest guys in the room” before Enron made the expression infamous. They strutted and preened like the Big Men on Campus of yore. Heaven help you if you got in their way or had the gall to question their veracity or their acumen. In short, I didn’t like them. The feeling was mutual, I can assure you. (Prior to my involvement in this event, Kenetech had a standing order that anyone caught talking to me would be fired. Obviously someone told me this, or I wouldn’t have known. Kenetech’s grip on its employees wasn’t as iron-clad as its senior management thought.)

The whole event was painfully awkward for me, from the can-can to the schmoozing. As an American, I don’t kowtow to royalty or their representatives. I am respectful as I would be to anyone in any foreign land, but I do not stand in awe of someone who was to the manner born. Nor did I care to spend a day with Kenetech’s wheelers and dealers, and they were that—in spades. And I don’t willingly help utilities greenwash their image.

I did not approve of the Kenetech-Edon project. I thought it was a disaster in the making that would set back wind energy in the Netherlands for years. (When I had given the utility a tour of a Tehachapi wind farm years earlier, I had encouraged them to use Danish machines. They were neither the first, nor the last, to ignore my advice.)

However, I do help my friends and sometimes we have to swallow our pride to help where and when needed. This was one of those cases. It was one of my nightmares come to life.

As you can imagine, I was not the organizer’s first pick for the dedication. US Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown was slated for the event. Tragically, just before the dedication, he was killed along with 34 others in a plane crash over Croatia during the Balkan wars.

The event needed an American, and no one of Secretary Brown’s stature was available on such short notice. This is where I came in. Edon knew me. Kenetech certainly knew me. My friend piped up that maybe I’d do it. I’ve always wondered what the conversation was like following his suggestion. Or was there simply silence with pained looks around the table. Whatever happened, the decision was made to invite me.

I couldn’t believe it when Bob called. “You have to be kidding,” I said. He explained the dire straits they found themselves in and told me that they needed someone like me, who was known in Europe and who could do it on short notice.

We were already planning a trip to Northern Europe on assignment for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a US non-governmental organization (NGO), Minnesota’s Sustainable Resources Center, a regional NGO, and Independent Energy Magazine. So, getting there wouldn’t be a problem.

I agreed to do it on the condition that I would not endorse Edon, Kenetech or this particular project. I would only talk about wind energy and its future regardless of this one project, and I did. See Remarks by Paul Gipe at the Dedication of EDON’s Wind Plant at Eemshaven, the Netherlands.

Though larger projects have since been installed in Europe, notably in Spain, the Eemshaven project was unusual in its day, containing 94 Kenetech KVS 33 turbines. Most projects in Europe were far smaller. The project was unusual too, because somehow Kenetech convinced the Dutch to allow them to install their wind turbines on a dike protecting a polder where the project was located. The turbines were not placed near the dike, but on it. This was unheard of, and has never been done since.

Worse, the wind turbine they would be using, the KVS 33, was problematic. The new design, like many wind turbines before it and many since, was hyped to the hilt. It was what America needed, according to Kenetech, a “5-cent” windmill for the 5-cent electricity it would generate.

The introduction of the KVS 33 hadn’t gone well. True, Kenetech was a serious company. It was not some fly-by-night group of flakes. They had serious engineers working on a serious design who were backed by serious money. Still, with all that backing, and with all the knowledge so painfully gained by then, they didn’t get it right. It was a design too far. They went too big too fast in trying to leap-frog the Danes. It didn’t work, and the hype didn’t help.

Early on there had been private grumbling in California that Kenetech was not listening to critics who meant well. The big men of Kenetech knew best, and the rest of the unwashed masses be damned.

From my perch in Tehachapi, the arrogance of the roll-out of the KVS 33 looked like an unfolding Greek tragedy. Hubris, we feared, would eventually fell the giant of wind energy, and possibly take others down with it.

At the time, wind energy advocates, including me, were calling for the aesthetic design not only of wind power plants, but also of the wind turbines themselves. This was intended to defuse criticism that wind turbines were a blight on the landscape. I remember attending a conference in the Netherlands a few years before the dedication at Eemsmond when one of the world’s experts on wind energy showed pictures of Tehachapi, where I worked, and Altamont, where Kenetech was located, and pointedly said, “We (Europeans) would never permit these kinds of projects here” because of the way they looked on the landscape.

Kenetech either didn’t know about the importance of aesthetic design, or worse, didn’t care. I was appalled by what I saw and characterized the KVS 33 nacelle design as a “cockroach on a stick.” I am sure that didn’t endear me to Kenetech’s masters of the universe.

Yet the towers Kenetech designed to use with the KVS 33 were even worse than the nacelle. It’s as though they had learned nothing from Danish success with wind-turbine design. The slender spun-concrete towers at Eemsmond were the stick on which the cockroach sat. They had taken giant steps in the wrong direction.

Then they started having problems in the field. These could be fixed and were—a number of KVS 33 turbines were still operating two decades later. Still, the problems cast doubt on the loud boasting the company was known for among its critics.

When I arrived in Groningen the night before the dedication, my welcome at Edon was a somber affair. One of the recently installed turbines had thrown a blade two days before the dedication. You don’t need to be an expert in wind energy to know this is very bad news, especially when you will have lots of VIPS walking around beneath the turbines.

Kenetech responsibly recommended shutting down all the turbines as a precaution. However, the embarrassed utility ordered the broken blade replaced and all the turbines kept in service for the dedication—the show must go on as though nothing had happened. Fortunately, the gods of wind energy were with us. There was no wind on the day of the dedication. . .

There was even worse news to come. Kenetech had been on the ropes for several months. Sales of the KVS 33 were not going well, and there were problems with the turbines that had been installed. My friend Bob took me aside and said Kenetech would declare bankruptcy that night. 400 people would lose their jobs. The giant had fallen.

Behind the scenes it was a disaster. Outwardly, it was keep calm and carry on.

There was an uneasy sense of schadenfreude. During the dedication, I remember examining one of the Kenetech turbines on display. I asked Bob how many years it had been in service. The drive train and components were severely corroded. It looked like something I’d seen in India years before. I was shocked when Bob said nacelle had just arrived. It was brand-new.

Many of the turbines standing on the dike had a liquid stain running down the concrete tower. At first I thought it was rain or cloud drip. No, I was informed. It was either hydraulic fluid or oil leaking from the nacelle. Whatever it was, it wouldn’t set well with the fastidious Dutch owners.

Edon, the utility, wasn’t without fault in this sad affair. It was an electric utility after all and its management was expanding aggressively in the then newly liberalizing European market.

The utility had installed several dozen Lagerwey 80 kW turbines distributed individually at pumping plants throughout the Groningen province where the utility was located. Though built in the Netherlands, these turbines were much smaller than the 300 kW Kenetech turbines. And if you believed Kenetech’s hype, the US company’s turbines could generate electricity much more cheaply than the ungainly Lagerwey turbines that were found all across the Netherlands.

Edon aggressively attacked the distributed use of Lagerwey turbines by Dutch farmers and cooperatives as “too costly.” They believed that only they could build the multiple-turbine wind farms necessary to generate cost-effective electricity. At the Eemsmond dedication, Edon’s chief executive, C. Witvliet publicly attacked the Dutch wind energy association (PAWEX) for its demands for fair compensation from Dutch utilities. Witvliet bragged that Edon developed Eemsmond for only 0.105 NLG/kWh ($0.061/kWh). This was an unheard-of price at the time—and hardly believable.

Witvliet wasn’t finished, though. He said Edon would do it for even less in the future, saying that large, utility-owned wind projects were the only way to “spread the use of wind energy at the lowest cost.”

His arrogance matched that of his US partner and he paid a steep price for it. His partner abrogated its warranty when it declared bankruptcy that day. The project was plagued with technical problems from the start and eventually the blades on all the turbines had to be replaced. And all Witvliet got for it was one of the ugliest wind projects in the world.

Edon was eventually gobbled up by another utility and 15 years later the KVS 33 turbines were replaced with Enercon machines manufactured nearby in Germany.

You’d think that would be the end of it, but no, there was one more event that seemed to capture the spirit of the whole day. That night, after all the official schmoozing was over, we retired to the hotel where the out-of-towners were staying. It was a place accustomed to catering for the high and mighty. Our host, a Kenetech executive, called for a round of drinks and fine cigars for those who wanted them. I can still see him sitting there, a cognac in one hand, a cigar in the other. The executive looked like a caricature from the days of the Robber Barons, smiling, laughing, and having a good time with his peers, all the while knowing that his credit card wasn’t valid and that he was stiffing the hotel. . .

The whole bawdy extravagance left a bitter taste. We escaped as early as we could the next day.

Here, fate intervened again. It was a bright, sunny—and windy—day. Traffic was light on a Sunday morning. The sense of adventure travel brings was beginning to push away the dark thoughts left moldering from the day before when we saw the windmill, a real Dutch windmill, turning in the wind with its flags flying proudly.

The fluttering flags were happily waving a welcome to visitors. It was an open house at the mill called Germania. The millers were a father-son team eager to share with us the history of their mill and to show us how it worked. They were excited to learn that not only were we Americans, but also that I was personally and professionally interested in their mill and their work to preserve it.

Thus began a day-long, serendipitous odyssey of exploration across the Dutch countryside that resonates with us still. (See Dutch Transplant Wants to Save a Czech Watermill and Photos of Germania and Zilvermeeuw Windmills.) There was an excitement and sense of camaraderie among us that had been missing the day before. Their puppy, Molinaartje, scampered about—exemplifying the exuberance we all felt in being in such a special place at such a special moment.

On that beautiful spring day, underneath the great sails of Germania, we recaptured a bit of the innocence and the wonder that we lost the day before, the wind cleansing our souls and rejuvenating our spirits.