General Electric Co., which lost its top spot in wind turbine sales this year, claims new market leader Vestas Wind Systems A/S is using its technology to protect their turbines from dramatic fluctuations in power.
The dispute comes as the U.S. wind industry is gearing up for significant growth. At the end of June, more than 25.8 gigawatts of wind farms were under construction or in advanced development in the U.S., up 41 percent from a year earlier, according to a report from the American Wind Energy Association. That’s on top of the 84 gigawatts already installed.
GE and Vestas dominate the market with a combined 83 percent of those projects that have contracts for turbines. Vestas has installed more wind turbines than any other firm, working in 33 countries across six continents last year. It recently surpassed GE to take the biggest market share in the U.S.
Vestas Chairman Bert Nordberg said he was concerned about maintaining this lead in an April interview, anticipating sharper competition from GE.
The patent covers a technology known as zero voltage ride through, which enables wind turbines to remain connected to the grid without damage during voltage fluctuations such as those caused by lightning strikes or short circuits. Typically the turbines were designed to disconnect from the grid.
Vestas said in a statement that it’s not been able to study the complaint in detail.
“Based on our initial assessment we strongly believe that the complaint is without merit and intend to challenge it,” the company said.
The patent is the same one that GE successfully asserted in a 2010 lawsuit against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. A federal jury awarded $170 million to GE, though the companies later settled.
GE contends Vestas is using the technology for marketing and at wind farms in 11 U.S. states. Vestas knew of the patent because one of its engineers was subpoenaed to provide documents and testimony in the Mitsubishi Heavy case, according to the complaint GE filed Tuesday in federal court in Los Angeles.
Anticipated advances in windmill technology is one of the key drivers pushing down the costs of wind farms. As turbines get bigger and more efficient, developers can reduce costs and generate returns more quickly by selling greater volumes of electricity to the grid. Manufacturers keep the contents inside the turbine nacelles — the boxes covering all the power-generating components — a tightly held secret.
GE contends that it’s entitled to cash compensation for the unauthorized use of its invention and will seek a court order that would block further use of the ride-through invention by Vestas.
The case is General Electric Co. v. Vestas Wind Systems A/S, 17-5653, U.S. District Court for the Central District of California (Los Angeles)