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Growth will come through productivity

In the last 30 years, the rate and cost of turbine installations have been key yardsticks for the wind industry. In that time, growth has been considerable and costs have fallen steadily. Based on these criteria it has been successful.

But now, after a record year of growth, the industry is anxious about the future. Enercon predicts an end to the run of lower prices, with tougher years to follow. With a stalling onshore market in many mature regions, the industry has to do more than simply install more megawatts of lower-priced wind turbines. It has to bring greater efficiencies too.

Nowhere is this more pertinent than China, which has long led the world in rate of growth — and in the low cost of its turbines. But it has failed to match this success in terms of output, with low grid connection and high curtailment rates compared with other mature wind markets.

Yes, it has taken steps to bring many of its unconnected projects online, and curtailment dropped from 12% to 8% in 2014. The shift away from quantity is in progress, but it still suffers from a poor record in turbine quality.

Analysts predict 25GW growth in China in 2015 then a fall to 20GW annually as subsidies reduce. Despite making up a huge portion of the total global installations, it will not match China's manufacturing capacity and its companies are likely to look abroad for added growth.

This could present a challenge to western businesses who are also looking for growth abroad. The battleground centres around regions in south-east Asia and Africa tempted by cut-price surplus Chinese turbines. Yet, conversely, the Chinese market may yet present an opportunity for some western suppliers.

If China is serious about improving the efficiency of its wind projects, shifting from being driven by megawatts installed to megawatt hours produced, as Giorgio Fortunato, Vestas' head of marketing for Asia Pacific and China said, then western component and operations suppliers may see a growing interest in their technology and knowledge. Targeted turbine models may also prove of interest — Gamesa, GE and Vestas have all launched low-wind models.

Similar focus

Efficiency improvements are by no means an exclusive demand from the Chinese market either. The financial world is showing a new enthusiasm for wind, particularly in the US — last year, over 20GW of operating wind assets changed hands, with pension funds being just one kind of investor keen to buy in. This is a welcome interest for many a developer looking to free up funds to invest in new projects, but the money will only follow assets that can prove they will provide a steady income.

The industry has already shown that projects can deliver cost-effective energy supply even without support mechanisms. But they must also demonstrate tight control of operations if they are to attract these new investors. These accountants start by ignoring the capex costs and looking straight at the cost per megawatt.

Turbine manufacturers have for some time been expanding their service divisions, and now developers and owners are giving operations more attention. Enel Green Power is just one developer that is wisely paying more attention, bringing in their operations managers at the start of new project plans, not as an afterthought.

Jacki Buist is editor of Windpower Monthly

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