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'We have stopped seeing ourselves as merely providing turbines'

EUROPE: Vestas is calling for renewable technologies to focus more on integrating with the grid and on policymakers to speed up system change.

Tied down… Vestas recently revealed a new tower design for low-wind sites using a concept adapted from bridge building to spread increased load
Tied down… Vestas recently revealed a new tower design for low-wind sites using a concept adapted from bridge building to spread increased load

The wind sector last year was good to Vestas. The Danish company reclaimed its position as the world's leading wind turbine provider and reported revenues of €965 million.

But now the firm wants to expand its focus away from solely providing wind solutions and is calling on the low-carbon industry to look at how technologies can work together as renewable energy begins to put a strain on grid systems.

Wind became the biggest renewable-energy source by capacity in the US, surpassing hydro for the first time, in 2016. In Europe, wind, and renewables in general, are playing an increasingly vital role in energy supply.

In Denmark alone, wind provided 37.6% of all electricity consumption last year. On 22 February, wind provided 104% of the nation's demand, according to WindEurope's daily wind stats service.

New daily wind generation records were also broken in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands during a windy week in February. New figures released by the European Commission's Eurostat service in March showed 11 European countries have reached their 2020 targets.

However, this growing influence of renewables on grids is causing a headache for some transmission operators, and Vestas wants to help.

"We still have an electricity market that is largely built around the logic of fossil fuels," said Morten Dyrholm, Vestas group senior vice president of marketing, communications and public affairs.

"For us, it's also a key message (to) policymakers everywhere that we need to really speed up the process of transforming the electricity market into one that can cater for flexibility and one that rewards flexibility."

Dyrholm, who is also chairman of the Global Wind Energy Council, said earlier this year that Vestas wants to become a leader in sustainable energy. "It's not enough for us to look at wind specifically. We need to look at how wind mixes with other technologies.

"From a Vestas perspective, we have definitely stopped seeing ourselves as merely providing turbines." he said.

Part of bigger system

"We are looking at ourselves more and more holistically, as part of a larger electricity system, where different technologies need to balance up against each other, and where we need to make sure we build products that are very flexible and have the right solutions towards grid stability," Dyrholm said. "It's critical everyone starts seeing their technologies as part of a larger technology mix."

Vestas is not the first wind-industry player to recognise the growing need for hybrid projects and combining with storage technologies.

GE Renewable Energy is supplying turbines to the US's first wind-solar hybrid site in Minnesota and to a pumped hydro-storage project in Germany. The latter will see the base of each turbine used as the upper water reservoir, while the lower basin is located in a nearby valley, 200 metres below the turbines.

Swedish utility Vattenfall is experimenting with co-location projects and using electric car batteries as a storage solution at some wind projects in the UK and the Netherlands.

While many companies are working on individual projects, Vestas is calling for a more coherent approach to supporting renewables' role on the grid and criticising policymakers for being too slow to change the system in favour of renewables.

"To be a little bit provocative, I would say that to a large extent, the industry is delivering already," said Dyrholm.

"The technology, the technical solutions are out there already. We see the move towards the energy union (in Europe). We are seeing policymakers starting the work to transform the electricity markets, but it's too slow."

Low prices

The low electricity prices currently being seen across the major markets are forcing a lot of wind to be wasted or curtailed. How do companies cooperate in getting more renewables on to a grid but keep profits? Dyrholm believes prices could be restored by shutting down fossil-fuel generators and increasing interconnectivity.

"The first thing we need to do to restore price signals in the market is getting rid of over-capacity. You can restore price signals, for example, (on) the European system, by removing up to 100GW of fossil fuel-based over-capacity on the system," Dyrholm said, adding the increase in renewable capacity was not matched by the shutting down of fossil-fuel plants.

"We (also) need grid interconnectors, and one European electricity market where we can trade electricity around. That would be the key to ensure the technology stays profitable. First and foremost, we need to balance supply and demand."

Consolidation

Considering Vestas' new interest in technology outside wind amid the continued trend of market consolidation, does this mean the Danish firm is looking for a way into the solar or battery market?

"The core and centre of what we do is and will continue to be wind, but we need to look at wind in the context of other technologies and the context of the electricity system.

"What we're saying now is we're opening the box. We're not saying we have a whole new set-up of products on the shelf, but we're open to opportunities in the field of how we can connect all the technologies with wind energy to make wind more efficient. That's really the key for us," Dyrholm said.

"Vestas (needs) to take its own responsibility to make sure the products we deliver will bring the needed flexibility into the electricity market."

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