Suppose that for once the human species does the right thing and works together to meet the challenge of climate change, taking serious steps to transform our unsustainable global energy system. Just suppose that we begin to overcome the entrenched interests that stand in the way of the renewable energy revolution that is already under way in many parts of the world. And suppose that our industry maintains something like the spectacular growth that has catapulted wind power from the fringes to a mainstream generation technology in the past few years. Just imagine what our industry might look like in 2020.
It is 2020. At Chicago's huge conference centre all eyes are on an offshore wind farm on Lake Michigan. This is Steve Sawyer's vision.
Suppose, just suppose, that for once the human species does the right thing and works together to meet the challenge of climate change, taking serious steps to transform our unsustainable global energy system. Just suppose that we begin to overcome the entrenched interests that stand in the way of the renewable energy revolution that is already under way in many parts of the world. And suppose that our industry maintains something like the spectacular growth that has catapulted wind power from the fringes to a mainstream generation technology in the past few years. Just imagine what our industry might look like in 2020.
Dateline: Chicago, May 4, 2020
As the Windy City's hotels are swamped for the opening of the joint US/Global Windpower conference and exhibition, nearly 100,000 delegates prepare for a week of deal-making and exploring the latest technological developments in what has become one of the world's largest manufacturing industries. The 10,000 exhibitors will just be able to squeeze into McCormick Place's largest-in-the-nation facility, occupying more than 250,000 square metres of exhibition space.
The eagerly anticipated opening session of Global Windpower features Chicago Mayor Michelle Obama throwing the switch to commission the final instalment of the late T. Boone Pickens' Lake Michigan offshore wind farm, pushing the US industry past the 300 GW capacity mark, counting for nearly a quarter of the world's 1200 GW of installed capacity.
Other dignitaries speaking at the opening session include President Fabio Feldmann of Brazil, now boasting more than 50 GW of wind power and the world's largest 100% renewable electricity system; and Indian Minister of Energy Srinivas Krishnaswamy, whose country is making a serious push to surpass China as the leading wind turbine manufacturing nation.
Old timers at the event recall with a chuckle that back in April of 2008 in Brussels, the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) marked passing the 100 GW mark, calling for 1000 GW by 2020, which was in fact achieved by the industry in mid-2018. "We didn't really believe it then, and I still remember being very excited when we passed 10,000 MW back in 1998," remarks one greybeard. "Who'd have thought we'd be installing nearly 150,000 MW a year in my lifetime?"
The Chicago delegates have a lot of things to discuss. First are the new technologies, such as the 10 GW generation of offshore machines and advances in superconducting ultra light generators. Then comes the latest expansion plans for the Northeast Atlantic offshore supergrid and the construction of the 100 billion dollar US East Coast offshore Bluewater Net.
In spite of these impressive advancements, many of the delegates grumble about the slow pace of onshore grid development, still the choking point for continuing the expansion of wind power. "Why is it that we can spend billions on the offshore grid but can't get permission for the last few miles of the Northeast tie-up?" queries one delegate, referring to the link between the northern end of the East Coast grid in Maine and the Maritime grid in eastern Canada.
Proponents argue that with full interconnection between Ontario and Quebec-Hydro, the burgeoning wind developments in the Canadian Maritimes and the Bluewater Net, then the last of the fossil and nuclear plants in New England can be shut down for good.
China's Special Envoy
Li Junfeng, China's special envoy for renewable energy, remarks that the renewable energy industry has now truly come of age. While wind power is still leading in new installed capacity, he can foresee a time in the next decade when solar photovoltaics (PV) will start to rival wind power. The boom in solar thermal power in north and central Africa will result in electricity exports to Europe, but meantime we are seeing new transmission capability to feed the booming economies on Africa's east and west coasts. "
This is very good news for our newest export business," Li says. "We continue to dominate wind and solar PV manufacturing, but the South Africans are giving us a run for our money in solar thermal."
Wind, however, is the main story in Chicago. Employing nearly 2.5 million people globally, the industry in 2020 is producing more than 3000 TWh - 12% of the world's electricity. The technology has been a major factor in the international effort that saw global carbon dioxide emissions peak last year and start what is hoped will be a permanent and rapid decline.
This is of small consolation to the citizens of the now-displaced island nation states of Tuvalu in the Pacific Ocean and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, whose homes have been inundated by rising sea levels following the collapse of the south Greenland glaciers in 2014.
But in a Sixth Assessment Report from 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that we still have a chance to prevent the meltdown of the rest of Greenland, and to see the stabilisation of the West Antarctic ice sheet. "It's touch and go," said IPCC Working Group III Chairman Ralph Sims from New Zealand, on hand for the opening festivities. "But if solar thermal, geothermal and tidal power follow in wind power's footsteps, then our kids will have a chance to finish the job."
Back to the present
It is no longer just an aspirational goal. GWEC's first blueprint for wind to supply 10% of global electricity by 2020 was published in 1999. Considered pie-in-the-sky by most at the time, "Wind Force 10" was updated a couple of years later to "Wind Force 12" to take account of the International Energy Agency's downgrading of estimates of global consumption for 2020 and wind power's faster than expected growth. Indeed, our history for the past decade or so has been one of making outlandish projections, then having the industry exceed them.
Who would have predicted that the industry would grow at an average rate of 28% year-on-year increase in cumulative installed capacity for the past 12 years? Who would have predicted that China's cumulative installed capacity would double each of the past four years, and appears likely to do so again? Governments around the world are enacting policies to increase the share of renewables in their supply portfolios to meet energy security, economic development and climate protection goals. Wind has to do most of the work to meet those targets.
- Steve Sawyer is Secretary General of the Global Wind Energy Council in Brussels, Belgium.