Technology: Turbine launch - Will slowly do it?

Against a background of poor market performance, Acciona Windpower is pinning its hopes on a new business partner and the relaunch of its 3MW turbine, writes James Quilter.

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New product development and lowering the cost of energy are just two of the challenges turbine manufacturers face. Another is dealing with the effects of market consolidation. This can affect even an industrial giant such as Acciona.

In March, Acciona president Jose Manuel Entrecanale said the company was seeking a partner for its wind division, Acciona Windpower. Explaining the decision, Entrecanale said: "Such a deal would allow us to compete in the international market."

Despite having a large presence in China and the US with its AW1500 1.5MW turbine, Acciona's wind division has been in something of a decline in recent times. A recent report by wind analyst Make Consulting on original-equipment manufacturer (OEM) market share found the Spanish company had fallen from 14th to 19th place between 2009 and 2010. And according to similar research from BTM, Acciona had only 0.9% of the global market share in 2010, compared to Vestas' 13%.

Arguably, one reason for this is design development by competitors both in Europe and China. In Europe, turbines have moved on from 1.5MW, while in China domestic manufacturers have gone from strength to strength.

In response, Acciona is relaunching its AW3000 3MW turbine with a 116-metre diameter blade at the American Wind Energy Association's annual conference this month. The machine will target the increasingly competitive class-2 low wind speed market. "We see the 3MW class for onshore as being the new sweet spot," says Scott Baron, Acciona's global product line director. "There are a lot of efficiencies that can be gained in operations and maintenance, and balance of plant costs, in addition to more value created for land-constrained situations."

There is no doubt a 3MW turbine with a 116-metre blade stands out in today's market. But Acciona admits that only one AW3000 has ever been built since its launch in 2008, although that version came with blade sizes of 100 and 109 metres. Acciona's competitors have launched numerous products during this time, but the company defends its patient approach, which Baron describes as part of its "testing process".

"Acciona takes a unique approach to prototyping by taking extra care to confirm performance before going to market," he says. "Since the initial installation of the AW3000, we have completed considerable testing and the product has met or exceeded performance expectations in all areas. As was the case with the development of the AW1500 series - which went through four years of prototyping before commercial release - there have been zero failures of major components. We believe this level of care associated with prototyping is a contributor to the industry-leading 98% availability figures we have experienced on our fleet of wind turbines."

Acciona says the new 116-metre version will go into serial production in the second half of next year. In 2011-12 it plans to install nine turbines in Spain and two in the US. However, a number of competing low wind speed products are already on the horizon, notably Nordex's N117 2.4MW machine and WinWind's 3MW WWD3, which has a 109-metre blade, as well as the Vestas V112 3MW.

Although many OEMs are currently looking at offshore, Acciona sees onshore and low wind speed locations as its main market. Nevertheless, Baron says the company is developing its own offshore programme. "We have 40 people working on it, but more in the structures and platforms, leveraging the expertise we have in Acciona Infrastructure having built bridges and canals," he says. "I expect we'll be a player in the future, but not in the short term."

Many of Acciona's competitors are unveiling their next generation of offshore turbines. If the AW3000 fails to make the impact Acciona hopes, the first task the company's new partner might have is to try and speed up the new product development process.

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