The value of long-term care

WORLDWIDE: A major German automotive company made substantial investment in the wind industry last month.

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No, it was not Audi muscling in on the wind industry with plans to brand Europe's next round of offshore turbines with its famous four-ring logo. It was transmission and chassis engineering firm ZF Friedrichshafen, whose components can be found under the bonnet of Audi vehicles, among others.

ZF bought a major stake in Hansen Transmission International, global manufacturer of wind turbine gearboxes and supplier to turbine giant Vestas.

The entrance of ZF into the wind-energy market some four years ago was as a refurbisher of many brands of gearboxes, providing service centres and testing facilities in the US, Europe and Asia. With its investment in Hansen, ZF will soon be able to provide both the original product and servicing of the gearbox to turbine manufacturers and wind-farm owners.

ZF may be bringing its expertise from other industries to the market, but this move reflects the growing importance in the wind industry of continuity of care. With every commission of a new turbine, the balance of this still young wind market edges ever closer to a more equal weighting between the installation of new models and the efforts to keep those already in service operating efficiently and effectively.

Even in the arena of new installations, as developers look to low-wind speed sites, the need for maximum yield becomes more acute. The early days of wind-power project development must seem to today's developers like a chocolate box of opportunity: pick one of the many available sites in simple terrain with a great wind resource and close to the grid, work out the power potential, mention it to a few financiers and wait for the offers to come to you.

Now, when today's developers are forced to consider low-wind speed sites, or find higher winds in complex terrain that pushes up the cost of construction, the wind-generation margins are so much tighter that the risk of a turbine being forced offline for an extended period of time could easily push a project's viability over the edge.

And these wind project business plans are often being based around the use of up-to-the-minute technologies: longer blades, new gearbox designs, taller towers, new materials (see page 49). Yet there must be no room for uncertainty. Investors demand that risks be almost non-existent, and all eventualities must be considered.

So, it will be continuity of care that potential owners are likely to rely on. If a project developer can demonstrate that every component in every turbine is being maintained and serviced according to need, and that risk of failure has been reduced to a minimum, then the financiers will consider backing the project.

Every successful business plan of the future will surely be looking in detail at the cost of long-term maintenance. And, with this recent entrant to the market audibly stating that it aims to gain market share and build confidence through a parallel process of manufacture and maintenance of what is often seen as one of the wind industry's most problematic components, let's hope that the market is fully awake to the importance of this aspect of project development.

Whether ZF manages to fulfil its aim to design a new gearbox that will last for 20 years remains to be seen, but at least it has refurbishment and aftercare facilities if it fails to do so.

Jacki Buist is associate editor of Windpower Monthly.

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