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Some things just don't change

If you found a time machine and sent our Top 10 turbine manufacturers feature back five years, it is doubtful anyone would believe they were looking into the future.

Besides wondering who Senvion is, the names - Siemens, Vestas, Enercon etc - would be where they are now.

Elsewhere there has been plenty of change since 2010. The US market has grown, tanked, and come back again. China is now the world's biggest market despite cuts to installations and curtailments. The UK offshore market has promised much and delivered rather less, while the emerging markets from South Africa to South America have embraced wind and become the new place to do business.

But one underlying factor remains remarkably similar to 2010 — the superiority of the European manufacturers, if not in terms of the companies then in research and development.

Three of the manufacturers are Chinese, yet they all use European expertise to some degree. Replace Goldwind and Ming Yang with Vensys and Aerodyn and it is still technically correct. And much of the innovation from GE stems from takeovers of German companies.

Europe's domination was outlined by Eddie O'Connor, CEO of Mainstream Renewables. Despite his own company focusing on emerging markets such as Chile and South Africa, he believes Europe will continue to be the place where the world's turbines will be designed.

Yet, in the same breath, O'Connor also said the European market had plateaued, or in his own words: "that ship has left the dock."

There is evidence to support this. Over the past five years, the biggest casualty has been the Spanish market, which has effectively been extinguished. Worryingly, the UK's Conservative government brought forward its plan to end onshore wind support, and even Germany seems to be cutting back, with market leader Enercon forecasting a need to expand overseas.

This was also outlined by the European Commission in its recent report into the likelihood of member states reaching their 2020 targets. It pointed to the UK, Netherlands and France as potential concerns, although the overall EU aim appears to be in good shape.

The bigger markets replacing Europe for growth appear to be overseas, typically, in hot climates such as Brazil, South Africa and even the Middle East. While local sourcing policies exist in many of these new markets, the bulk of wind technology still comes from Europe.

But this is not guaranteed to continue. As former Siemens CTO Henrik Stiesdal said, after a period of exponential growth, just as in aeronautics, development slows, hampered by practical limitations. And innovation in the wind industry has slowed. In the past five years the biggest advances have been in offshore, focused on Europe. Onshore, many of the biggest sellers are evolutions of products. And if development continues to slow, will manufacturing and design move to emerging markets? At the moment the bulk of local sourcing conditions is centred around components like towers, which are easy to reproduce.

Of course, there could still be change in Europe, driven by the supergrid, which O'Connor believes could be a game-changer in the European market.

But then again, back in 2010, the industry was talking about a supergrid. And we are not much closer now to its reality as we were then.

James Quilter is associate editor of Windpower Monthly

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