Asian firms knock on Europe's door

An eye-catching cultural exchange took place at EWEA 2011. Two German delegates finishing a chat with a Chinese supplier asked the representative how to say "good-bye" in Mandarin. He told them "zai jian". But "ni hao" - or "hello" - would have been more apt when addressing the raft of Chinese wind suppliers making first appearances at the European Wind Energy Association's March 14-17 annual event in Brussels.

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The first-time Chinese exhibitors included Sinovel, newly ranked second worldwide in annual sales. The company debuted with a stand whose size rivalled those of several established European competitors. Nearby was junior supplier Guodian United Power. Although tiny compared to Sinovel, Guodian managed to erect turbines on US soil before Sinovel and now clearly wants to take the fight to Europe.

While world number four supplier, Goldwind, did not have a stand, its German subsidiary Vensys was highly visible, as were several smaller Chinese wind turbine and component makers. South Korea's Hyundai made its first appearance at EWEA 2011, but Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries stayed away.

On the way

For European suppliers there is no ignoring the arrival of Asian rivals. The Chinese clearly had the strongest presence in Brussels. Sinovel has steamed forward in recent years, easily keeping its 2009 vow to join the top three global manufacturers by 2012. It has also said it will be number one by 2014.

Many Asian wind turbine makers - Sinovel and Hyundai among them - have giant industrial parents. And with wind turbine prices falling below EUR1 million a megawatt for the first time since 2005, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, competition from Eastern firms with low production costs is becoming ever keener for European firms.

Sinovel, which opened an office in the Spanish capital of Madrid in February, advertised its 1.5MW, 3MW and 5MW turbines at the Brussels event. The latter two models have offshore versions. European representative Ma Xiaoli described how her company aims to apply domestic experience abroad. "We have built the first offshore wind park outside Europe, the Donghai," she said, referring to the 100MW Shanghai Donghai Bridge project that went online last June.

Ma admits the going may be tough. "Obviously, we're a new player here," she said. "If you want to enter a market already dominated by others, you have to offer better conditions." Sinovel is offering 24-hour service and financing off its own balance sheet as well as from Chinese lenders.

Chinese newcomers' greatest hurdle is to persuade Western developers that their quality is up to par. Ma noted that Sinovel's 1.5MW and 3MW models bear Germanischer Lloyd certification, adding that the 5MW, still in prototype, will be submitted this year for certification by GL Garrad Hassan, the renewables consultancy that absorbed Germanischer Lloyd.

Sinovel turbines have also withstood the test of nature, she said, describing installations in temperatures ranging from minus 45 degrees Celsius to 50 degrees above. "Not many people have wind farm experience in these extremes," said Ma.

While data enabling objective comparison of the performance of Chinese and Western turbines is scarce, in a one-year study of Sinovel and Gamesa turbines conducted in north China by Beijing-based consultancy Azure, Sinovel turbines achieved superior output.

Fresh from signing a contract to supply six 1.5MW turbines to a project in Texas, Guodian United Power used the EWEA event to market its 1.5MW and 3MW units - both GL certified - as well as a 6MW model under development. Guodian United Power is targeting Turkey, Romania, Poland and Bulgaria. Further ahead, the firm is prioritising offshore sales: it produced an offshore model of its 3MW turbine last year and has installed an intertidal unit in China. Officials at the company, whose parent is state-owned power company Guodian, said Guodian United Power is also arranging financing from Chinese state-owned banks and is in talks with European banks.

While deals have yet to be signed and sealed, it seems only a matter of time before Guodian United Power and other Asian wind companies get their foot in the European door.

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