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Competitive age needs deep pockets

There are many challenges associated with developing projects in forested, low-wind sites, but finding a suitable turbine is not likely to be one of them.

Indeed, developers are being spoiled for choice as OEMs turn their focus on this sector, fine-tuning their technology to maximise energy generation from such sites, despite the complexity of their terrain and less-than-ideal wind resources.

Four major manufacturers - Vestas, Nordex, GE and Senvion - chose the Husum wind fair in September to unveil long-bladed, quiet-running 3MW-plus turbines, all designed to operate at hub heights of at least 130 metres. Everyone, it seems, has been working on the same idea.

We will only have to wait a year or two see how these machines compare in the field - a relatively short lead time because all these turbines are variations on existing themes rather than entirely new models. GE and Nordex expect to start series production towards the end of next year, with Vestas and Senvion following in 2017-18.

That starts to look like a very crowded market, especially when you take into account that a low-wind variant of Enercon's new 4MW platform should also be available by 2018. The competition in this sector will be fierce, and the battle will not be confined simply to the price and performance of the turbines. Tower design, taking into account the transport and logistical difficulties of developing wind projects on complex sites, will be crucial to success. We report in detail on Vestas' tower solution. Similar considerations will have to apply to the conveyance and installation of the extra -long blades these turbines require. And, of course, there is the business of measuring and monitoring the site's wind resources to arrive at the optimum layout of the wind farm.

A competitive industry, one where several players are developing and bringing to market new and improved products that drive down costs and raise performance, is a healthy one. On this evidence, wind power looks in robust shape - and it will need to be if it is to continue to prosper in an energy environment where feed-in-tariffs and green certificates are increasingly being replaced by competitive tendering as the preferred means of getting wind power on to the grid and paying for it. As we report in our feature on wind-power trading trends, in 2009 only ten countries were using auction schemes to procure renewables; by 2013 this had grown to 44.

Casualties likely

Competitive tendering throws particular weight on developers, which have to invest heavily in permitting and planning before they can even prepare a bid for a proposed project. Expertise and experience are important in this regard, but so are deep pockets. The winners from the auction process tend to be big, established players with good access to capital who can take advantage of economies of scale.

In wind power's brave new world of competitive tendering there will be little room for mistakes and none for sentiment. This will drive down costs, vital to compete against other forms of electricity generation, and good news for power purchasers. But it will leave casualties in its wake among the smaller developers and turbine makers. The future lies in fewer, bigger firms. In a few years it may be hard to imagine a time when four manufacturers chose the same show to launch four such similar machines.

Shaun Campbell is features editor of Windpower Monthly

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