Visit windpowermonthlyevents.com for the latest on our upcoming conferences and webcasts

LACK OF FOCUS BLURS VITAL ISSUES

Report of the European Union Wind Energy Conference and Exhibition (EUWEC '96) held in Gothenburg, Sweden, in May. Much news was reported indicating that installation targets are being exceeded and technical progress is on course. But the conference reflected more uncertainty than determination in dealing with the fundamental instability of the European wind energy market. The need to publicise the evident success of wind to gain more public and political support was a recurring theme and the failure to get to grips with R&D priorities was disappointing, especially to European Commision staff. Conference delegates were warned that by passive default they could well lose their market in Europe--currently the largest for wind in the world.

Upbeat and banner waving at the start, this year's premier event of the European wind energy calendar closed in a jumble of confused signals, with no clear indication of the way ahead. By the fifth day of the European Union Wind Energy Conference and Exhibition, the early air of self congratulation had dissipated in a vacuum of frustration and unease -- frustration at the paralysing lack of focus on vital issues and unease at the lack of direction, not to say leadership, of the European wind community. Participants left Gothenburg in the dark knowledge that it would be "business as usual" for the foreseeable future, but that such pasive acceptance of the status quo could mean the beginning of the end of the wind market.

Setting the scene at the opening of EUWEC '96, held May 20-24, conference chairman Arthouros Zervos reminded delegates that at the last European Union conference in 1994 a target of 1000 MW had just been reached and that a target of 2000 MW was talked about for 1996. "We have been overtaken by events, though. Today we can celebrate more than 2500 MW. I think this is an important message," he said of the 160% increase in European installed capacity in two years. Europe was also well on track to exceed the European Wind Energy Association's 1991 target of 4000 MW by 2000, he added. Listing wind's achievements he talked of the new generation of megawatt scale turbines, the huge increases in capacity (wind now supplies the domestic needs of four million people in Europe), the reduction of costs to ECU 900/kW installed and ECU 0.055/kWh, the widespread investment in wind by banks and utilities, and the 20,000 jobs created in Europe.

As the week wore on, this same theme of success was picked up by half a dozen speakers. Among those presenting similar statistics were no less than three members of the European Commission, as well as David Lindley of National Wind Power and keynote speaker Ian Mays, president of the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA). As well as quoting costs for wind as low as ECU 850/kW installed and ECU 0.05/kWh, Mays also drew a wider picture, pointing out that wind's toughest competitor, natural gas, had only 56 years of reserves, while oil would be facing severe restrictions before then and nuclear was looking at a current life of just 64 years in face of current public opposition. The disappearance of these energy sources would place enormous demand on coal reserves, hastening the need for renewables such as wind, said Mays.

Public relations

Significantly, a recurring theme of these various overviews was that public support was a vital prerequisite for market expansion -- and that market expansion would bring costs down through increased manufacturing volume. Several speakers identified the necessity of spreading the news of wind's successes as the key to gaining public support.

Karin Hammarlund of Lund University in Sweden reported on a study she had made of public opinion surveys in five European countries. An important point to remember, she said, was that wind developers do not have to generate public support, only retain it. "If it is possible to keep people positive during the process then there usually isn't a problem. People are positive generally until a project is proposed near them. We need to keep them positive." Fear of the unknown rather than fear of wind power was a common theme, she said. "By providing information prior to construction it is possible to keep the public positive. This is because they feel they can have an influence on the project." And a positive attitude usually helped with the public's perception of noise. "Once people have seen a wind turbine in operation they start discussing and appreciating the value of this type of energy in a wider context," concluded Hammarlund.

Ian Mays, who as well as EWEA president also heads Renewable Energy Systems in the UK, where these themes are well known, stressed the vital importance of public relations, listing a series of actions which needed funding at European level. He was supported in his call for action by several officials of the European Commission, including Wolfgang Palz from the research directorate, DG XII, and Enzo Millich from DG XVII, the energy directorate. Both clearly felt the industry could do more to push for renewables funding, not least by publicising its successes.

But here the PR ball stopped rolling. Instead of serving as a catalyst for action, the conference's litany of success stories only barely missed dissolving into a general smugness, seen by several observers as a dangerous forerunner of complacency. A challenge thrown out to the industry to finance a professional public relations machine was only half heartedly accepted by Enercon's Aloys Wobben, who agreed to co-ordinate discussion of funding for PR within EWEA's corporate group. Whether this initiative is pursued by the industry remains to be seen.

Struggling in transition

Indeed, the conference seemed to be struggling with wind's transition from a promising new technology to a serious, though small player on the European energy market. "You should not to be afraid to be ranked with the conventional energy sources," admonished Christophe Bourillon, director of EWEA, sensing the reluctance of his audience to stand up and be counted. But fear of attracting the unwanted attention of the fossil fuel and nuclear lobbies -- and fear of losing government financial support -- were cited as reasons for not shouting about wind's achievements to the outside world in an orchestrated public relations initiative. It was a hesitant attitude which clearly frustrated many. Evidence of wind's competitiveness was presented throughout the conference, yet few of its proponents seemed to seriously believe the facts they were putting forward.

Typical of this contradiction were papers from a string of speakers who all spoke of the energy market's failure to recognise wind as the cheapest option. At the same time, though, they championed the need to reduce costs, thereby tacitly admitting that wind was expensive compared with other sources, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Joanna Tachmintzis from the cabinet of European Energy Commissioner Christos Papoutsis, headed this confusing trend. In a rousing address to the conference, she said wind met the three most important goals of European energy policy: promotion of industry, security of supply and minimal environmental impact. "The role of wind energy will be crucial," she said. "Wind energy is now an abundant, clean, safe, predictable and reliable source of energy." But market penetration of renewables is unacceptably low and energy prices must be made to reflect environmental impact through the internalisation of external costs, she continued. Yet at the same time, Tachmintzis identified lowering wind's costs -- along with technical advances and public acceptance -- as a major goal, even while acknowledging that costs would fall as a natural consequence of an expanding market.

Encouragingly, Hendrik Tent from the Commission's directorate for research and technology, DG XII, echoed Tachmintzis' views. Development of renewables is central to Europe's energy system, he said. In his view the users of the system and the utilities will be required to adapt to new energy technologies, rather than the other way around. Tachmintzis added: "The Commission is convinced about the role of wind. There is scope for action."

Commission seeks feedback

Such action, though, will have to come from the industry. While accepting that "we need to help the industry arrive at a critical mass so that it can achieve greater penetration," Tachmintzis is looking to wind turbine manufacturers, their component suppliers and their service companies, to provide political push. Europe's Fifth Framework Programme is now being prepared, added Tent. It will be more focused than the current Fourth Framework Programme and concentrate on key issues; there will be more co-ordination with national policies and greater insistence that research pass a "total innovation" criteria -- words which were music to the ears of the many EUWEC '96 delegates who agreed with Zervos that there was far too much "reinventing the wheel" in conference papers.

With the Fifth Framework Programme still being developed, the wind community has scope to influence its details. Traditionally, the path of wind energy research and development in Europe has been gently guided by officials of the Commission. Research has and is being conducted by dozens of institutes, universities, commercial consultants and companies throughout Europe, all independent of each other and often speaking different languages. The Commission has acted as the co-ordinating force, whispering in ears to right and left, while nudging others along the way to greater shared knowledge. At the same time, officials dealing with wind have done what they could in the corridors of Euro-power, putting in a good word here and there to make up for the fact that, unlike more powerful energy lobbies, wind has not had the opportunity to garner friends in high places.

This activity by officials has now come to an abrupt end, a subtle change in the way things work in Brussels which the industry needs to be aware of. The start of this new era of Commission partnership is a reflection of wind's increased maturity. The attention of powerful opposing forces is being turned on renewables, as seen in the debacle of last year's round of funding under the EU's Joule programme (Windpower Monthly, October 1995). Officials are now being carefully watched and no longer enjoy the same freedom as before.

For this reason, the failure of the conference to get to grips with R&D priorities was a blow to Commission staff. A panel discussion -- aimed at reaching a consensus on pre-competitive R&D topics to be undertaken on a European level -- failed to get off the ground. Frustratingly, the discussion evolved into a debate of the market, a subject which should have been addressed by the panel of the previous day. This panel, however, had collapsed into a numbing technical description of the advanced control of wind output into the grid. In fact, the lack of focus of these panel discussions was a clear reflection of the conference's lack of focus, which in turn reflected the lack of focus of the entire wind community on these vital issues.

Despite a series of provocative and stimulating presentations by Commission staff and others, key questions relevant to R&D strategy, such as how to deal with the conflict of interest between commercial confidentiality and the need for broad generic knowledge, remained unanswered. Nonetheless, Commission officials feel hopeful of feedback in the weeks to come -- and the conference session did give Komninos Diamantaras of DG XII the chance to point out that wind R&D was now a matter of "business as usual" in the EU. Funding would not be withdrawn just because wind was becoming competitive, he said. In fact, quite the reverse is more likely, as illustrated by GØs van Kuik from Stork Product Engineering in the Netherlands. On a thermometer measuring status of knowledge, he placed airfoil design -- a key area of wind turbine optimisation -- at about 30% along the way. Yet even at this level of knowledge, wind is competitive with nuclear and fossil fuels, strong argument indeed for continued funding. Wind, incidentally, is currently only receiving some 1% of the R&D money going to nuclear and fossil fuels, says Enzo Millich, responsible for hydrocarbons and renewables at the Commission's energy directorate, DG XVII. Political push is needed to correct this imbalance and it is up to the wind industry to provide the facts and figures for such campaigning, he added.

The pressing need for effective public relations to bring about more positive action on clean energy policies was underlined by Thyge Weller of Germany's Winkra-Recom GmbH. His scientific study of the likely future for wind power concluded that the current market is "fundamentally unstable," with no long term security. For a large number of wind turbine manufacturing companies, the best times are over, even if they do not yet know it, he said. "Time moves much faster than we all think. The wind energy industry has to plan, decide and act now."

Fundamentally unstable

Wind, according to Weller, is currently hovering at the wrong side of a cross roads made up of four market scenarios, two negative and two positive. For all four scenarios, Weller identified macro economics as the most decisive factor. He argued that even if fossil fuel prices were to soar and wind were to simultaneously achieve a technological breakthrough, this would not be enough to secure more than a tiny market in a country or region that was pressured economically. Under such a scenario, wind would struggle along with "selected niche markets." In an even worse scenario, if a general economic downturn were combined with deadly worldwide competition from traditional electricity technologies, the wind market would collapse completely, leaving only "micro niches" of wind turbine owning fanatics.

More optimistically, Weller's two positive scenarios presume broad economic stability and stable government, though both require strong pro-renewables action. In his best scenario, a "sustainable energy system," Weller allows for an innovative framework approach where a scenario emerges in which energy prices would reflect all external costs, making wind so competitive its market would grow enormously. This would lead to a massive increase in the volume of sales which would further force costs down and lead to technological breakthroughs. Weller points out, however, that the internalisation of external costs is unlikely and that quantum leaps in technology development are even more unlikely. "All trends indicate that the move towards such a solar energy world has only the value of a rather vague third priority," he wryly commented.

Weller's fourth scenario takes place under a conventional framework approach and is titled "government controlled market quota." In this scenario he predicts that growing environmental problems will lead governments to mandate large market quotas for clean energy sources. In such protected markets, high local content of wind turbines for job creation would be a driving market force. "We will see a subsidised industry without true competition," he said.

Commenting on the status quo of the wind market, Weller sees it hovering between a "government controlled market quota" scenario under a conventional framework, to the "selected niche markets" scenario under an innovative framework. This situation is unlikely to improve, he added, in view of the world trend towards lowered environmental priorities. "We see, with a high probability, a movement towards a low priority-conventional framework. This is the passive default scenario. If we don't act pro-renewable, things will move this way. If we combine our forces, however, and fight for improved social acceptance of the renewables, there is a chance that the market will move towards higher social priority values, but within today's framework," he told the conference.

"The future is what we make out of it. Wind energy manufacturers have the chance to actively influence their future. Integration promotion activities are needed, despite the differing goals within the industry," he said.

Utilities, he pointed out, will only become actively involved should markets get bigger. The conference bore witness to this claim. Though utility representatives were in attendance from several countries, including Sweden, Germany and Denmark, they were reluctant to be drawn into discussion of their future roles, preferring to remain on the sidelines. One exception was the particularly blunt comment from a representative of the local Gothenburg utility Göteborg Energi. "If we look at prices we do not choose wind energy. The only reason we chose to build a wind power station was an image question," he said.

According to Weller, Göteborg Energi would fall into the latter of two categories on a competitive energy he market. In such a market, he foresees a fragmenting of the utility front into a hard line fraction, which will intensify its defence against all forms of renewables, and a fraction of more forward looking utilities which will "accept wind energy and other renewables and try to get it under control."

Dogs and cash cows

On the status of the wind industry, Weller used an American analytical method to divide it into four groups according to the market share and innovative capability of individual companies. The groups were: stars, problem children, dogs and cash cows. Stars are heading for maximum growth at maximum speed and stand a good chance of making it as a mega-company in the new solar world, said Weller. They want fast market growth. Problem children, though, are too small to cope with fast growth, even though they are innovative. If the market takes off, they are likely candidates to be taken over. Dogs, meantime, are not innovative and are only concerned about their guaranteed market quota and have no real survival chances. Finally, "cash cows," large as they are, look for growing and protected markets. "They will neither survive under harsh competitive pressure nor are they flexible enough to adapt to shrinking markets. They are therefore concentrating on good government relationships and do not necessarily support creative new market structures," said Weller, who left it up to the industry to put its various members in these categories. He warned, however, that few manufacturers will survive. Instead they will be amalgamated into a few large companies, or dispersed into a myriad of service companies.

With home markets looking shaky in the long term, several platform speakers spoke of the huge potential of less developed countries, starting with the keynote address by Mays. He stressed the attractiveness of an energy technology which does not require subsequent purchases of fuel. During the session on market potential, Lindley also dwelt on the developing world. In the 1990s these markets were seeking 400,000 MW of new generating capacity, representing an annual increase in power plant of 6%, he said. Half this total demand was needed by China, India and Brazil. Although much of this capacity would be provided by national power industries in the west, Lindley estimated a potential of 248,000 MW for independent power producers.

But with no ready cash, the developing world was looking to the west to provide some $100 billion to finance the expansion of its power base, said Lindley. Energy aid, though, is only $10 billion a year, no more than 4% of that required. Despite this, Lindley felt there was good potential for wind to argue politically for its share of the cake available.

The Commission's Millich picked up Lindley's theme and repeated his call for the Thermie energy technology demonstration programme to be expanded to supporting projects abroad. This, though, would require political lobbying to achieve, he warned, turning the conference once again towards the necessity of public relations campaigning to get these messages across.

Strides forward

On the technical front, there was no startling news at EUWEC '96, although evidence of steady R&D progress was available. David Quarton of European wind consultants Garrad Hassan was one of a handful of speakers who pointed out that design reality and technical theory were now close to merging. Theoretical models of wind turbine behaviour had now been so well validated that industry design teams were now able to use them with confidence, he said.

The launch of Garrad Hassan's long awaited computer programme for calculating wind turbine loading and performance, "BLADED for Windows," attracted a deal of interest, also from American delegates. The programme has taken 12 years to develop in projects backed by the EC and others. The aim, said Quarton, was to produce an "industry standard for wind turbine design calculation." BLADED integrates four Garrad Hassan programmes and has been validated against nine different wind turbines of varying shapes and sizes. According to Quarton, the programme is fast and extremely user-friendly. By toggling icons representing the various parts of a wind turbine -- blades, rotor, tower, and power train -- a wind turbine designer can gain access to a series of windows allowing him to enter specific design parameters, both for the machine concept and wind regime it will operate in. The computer then calculates loading and performance, if necessary for a huge variety of requested design parameters.

The advantage for the wind industry, says the firm's Andrew Garrad, is that it removes much of the risks of "build and bust" wind turbine design methods of the past. "By doing things properly from the start a company can prevent likely failures," he said. "It gives you confidence to make a leap in technology."

Indeed, the most popular conference sessions were those on the large wind turbines being developed under the DG XII's WEGA programme and on related component design. For the first time during the conference, more than 400 of the 500-plus delegates in attendance gathered in the giant auditorium. During the rest of the week, no more than 200-250 were seen in the auditorium at any one time.

Causing a stir among the updates of wind turbines already known to the wind community, was a presentation by John Armstrong of Britain's Wind Energy Group (WEG). In what many described as a brave leap into the unknown, he presented his company's plans for an extremely innovative downwind, lightweight and flexible 600 kW wind turbine, more in keeping with American than European design philosophies. Industry commentators observed that the success or failure of the concept would make or break WEG, a veteran of the wind business and the only remaining manufacturer of utility scale wind turbines in Britain.

On another front -- and in keeping with the emerging public relations theme of the conference -- was a presentation of computer-aided wind farm design by Nicolas Lymberopoulos of Greek company CINAR. His newly developed programme allows project developers to "integrate all wind farm planning activities into a single task, including environmental impacts," he said. The programme allowed the user to design aerial topography maps for detailed siting of single machines, before taking the viewer on a "walk through the wind farm." The facility, said Lymberopoulos, would be extremely useful in the planning process. Local authority planners with no knowledge of wind energy could be involved in wind turbine siting on screen and gain a better understanding of a wind project developer's problems with combining optimum yield with an attractively laid-out wind farm. Energy output, noise calculations and capacity factors were instantly available for each siting configuration -- and even the height of the sun could be specified to give an impression of a project's appearance at various times of day, said Lymberopoulos.

When the sun set on EUWEC 96, however, delegates remained uncertain of the future picture. A series of major questions remained unanswered. Should the wind industry join forces to finance a prolonged public and media relations campaign? On what aspects should R&D be concentrated at a European level? What is to be the attitude of wind to the other renewables in Europe -- should it join them to form a strong lobbying force (and risk being grouped with "uneconomic" technologies far from the marketplace) or strike out on its own? And what should wind's relationship be to nuclear power, now keen to diversify into other "clean energy" areas? "We have been approached by the nuclear lobby," said EWEA's Bourillon. "But nuclear has problems we would not like to be seen to be associated with."

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles
and free email bulletins.

Sign up now
Already registered?
Sign in

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus

Windpower Monthly Events

Latest Jobs