Despite constraints, technological development carries on

WORLWIDE: In her opening speech at this year's European Wind Energy Association conference, Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt called on the wind industry to hasten its development of technology and lower the cost of energy.

Minutes later, Siemens Wind Power CEO Felix Ferlemann stood up to say that, yes, he would like to do this, but it would require investment for which the world's governments would need to create the right financial environment.

Therein lies the dilemma for manufacturers and the wind industry as a whole. Anyone analysing the 2011 financial results from manufacturers will have noticed the high research-and-development (R&D) costs among the revenue and pre-tax profit figures. Since then, the US production tax credit, tighter regulation in China and Europe's sovereign debt crisis have all had an impact on revenues and profits. Looking ahead, there is a danger these factors could put a further squeeze on R&D.

Despite this backdrop, the industry has continued to evolve and develop products at a speed that is arguably unrivalled within the energy sector. Our feature, starting on page 7, covers a full range of recent developments, encompassing blades, towers, drive systems, monitoring technology and larger, more efficient turbines for offshore and onshore use.

Low-wind focus

One area where the industry has risen to Thorning-Schmidt's request is in the development of low-wind turbines. Proving it's not all about power rating, Vestas, GE and Nordex have been among those to invest in turbines with larger rotors for low-wind locations.

The latest is Gamesa's recent launch of a 2MW turbine with a 100-metre rotor. As the availability of high-wind sites onshore declines and the need to build projects near high-population centres increases, this trend is likely to continue.

In terms of offshore, new turbines continue to be announced, most notably in China where the government has put its weight behind the development of larger-capacity machines. Over the past year, Siemens, Nordex, Alstom and Vestas have all launched new designs in the 6-7MW class. However, market uncertainty is likely to be the greatest obstacle to the development of this technology. The Vestas V164 machine has been delayed and will now not be built until 2014 at the earliest, while Nordex's N150/6000 failed to progress beyond the drawing board after the company was unable to bring in a development partner.

Other advances are coming in the form of innovative designs to promote simpler and safer access for operations and maintenance (see page 23). As turbines increase in size, the need for safe climbing aids becomes more acute. In a sector that carries the risk of workers falling to their death inside a wind tower, improved health and safety is becoming a central issue. These tougher safety requirements are continuing to drive advances in the service lift arena.

Outside the turbine, grid compliance continues to be a focus. Our feature on page 35 looks at Europe where there has been an attempt to simplify and harmonise the myriad national grid codes into a single Europe-wide code.

External influence

The bottom line is, however, that money - and the efficient use of it - is likely to be a key driver for innovation. Over the past year, as prices have continued to fall, there have been many rumours about the latest turbines being too expensive to produce. The recent influx into the industry of executives from the automotive sector, such as Gamesa's executive chairman, Ignacio Martin and Vestas' COO Jean-Marc Lechene, could hint at how a leaner, meaner wind manufacturing industry of the future might look.

Indeed, Siemens' Ferlemann himself was a former chief of automotive company Benteler's chassis division. He said there were too many platforms in the wind sector and that more components and product lines need to be shared. Although it is doubtful that the wind industry will ever experience the level of collaboration seen, for example, between Nissan and Renault who co-develop their own chassis, pure players like Vestas are already looking to bring in partners to jointly develop products. The question is not if such policies will continue but how far they will go and how they will affect the product as a result.

The wind industry has clearly demonstrated that it has the ability to adapt and innovate quickly - and it has no choice but to continue doing so if it is to achieve the cost-of-energy goal called for by the Danish premier. But, against a background of continuing uncertainty, these developments will have to be achieved cost-effectively, with a focus not just on the product but its production.

James Quilter is associate editor of Windpower Monthly.

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