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Survival despite policy dithering

If there is one word that dominates when talking about market conditions for wind power across the world it is "uncertainty".

Its ubiquity in our coverage of what is happening — or not — in Europe, North America and Australia particularly, has had the editorial staff in this office fighting over the thesaurus in search of suitable synonyms. But whether you go for doubt, confusion, indecision, lack of clarity or plain old dither and delay, it all adds up to the same thing. The wind power industry is being crippled by its inability to plan for the medium and long term.

The failure of governments to provide firm policy direction remains the wind industry's biggest problem. The US market continues to boom and bust in tune to each change of mind on the production tax credit (PTC). The European market has hardly been helped by the European Commission's latest recommendations, which do not include binding national targets for renewable energy generation.

A recommendation for some sort of increase in renewable energy across the continent will at least allow those countries that have built an industry around wind power — Germany and Denmark, for example — to pursue high wind-energy growth targets of their own. But the EC largely appears to offer more incentive to nuclear power and shale gas than wind or solar energy.

Wind developers and manufacturers cannot sit on their hands and wait for the policy makers' decisions. To survive, let alone flourish, they must press ahead with their own plans. They have already had to deal with the monetary strait-jacket imposed by the economic crash of 2008, and there are signs that they are learning to adapt. And having survived so far, they are regaining confidence, bringing a more bullish sentiment to the industry than the dithering indecision that could be felt just 12 months ago.

The survival strategies adopted largely share the common aim of reducing both risk and cost. But their execution has been varied. Some businesses have diversified, widening to encompass different energy sources. Others have reduced their portfolio to concentrate on a key industry, or part of an industry. Some have shrunk their businesses in one country, and expanded in another. Most, if not all, have reassessed their business practices internally, and become sharper and sleeker in operations.

Economies of scale

Co-operation is becoming the new buzz-word, imperative to cutting the costs of offshore wind. To stand any chance of being price-competitive, these projects have to take advantage of the economies of scale that can only be provided by very large undertakings. To make this work requires both developers and manufacturers to pool their resources and technologies in joint ventures and collaborative agreements.

It is beginning to happen, as the Vestas-MHI deal, and the talks between Gamesa and Areva demonstrate. But it is a long way from being the norm, as the current legal wrangling over patents between Gamesa and Enercon reveals.

This does nothing to help the wind industry.

To the outside world, the spectacle of turbine makers fighting expensive legal battles over patent infringements is less than edifying.

Only one group of people make money from law suits: the lawyers. This is a cost the wind sector can do without.

Jacki Buist is editor of Windpower Monthly

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