I predict there will always be some unpredictability

With a new year started, and having survived the suggested end of the world on 21 December, I have been reading a number of essays about predictions.

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I was particularly interested in a piece about famous experts making poor predictions. The author, US psychologist and university professor Philip Tetlock, concludes that experts on average perform little better than a chimpanzee throwing arrows.

Tetlock distinguishes between two categories of expert predicters. The first is an expert who focuses on a single idea, largely ignoring additional information sources and becoming completely engulfed by in-depth analysis until he is absolutely certain that the idea is correct, and proven. The second category is described as experts with "real insight". These use a wide range of ideas for the different causes of a problem and are eager to accumulate any random information while accepting complexity as fact. This latter expert also prefers to say "perhaps" or "I am not sure" instead of "certain" or "impossible".

Tetlock shows that the second type of expert predicter proves the better forecaster. He described this outcome as a central paradox: audiences generally demand clear talk, yet research suggests that consideration, acceptance of new ideas and nuance should be promoted.

Tetlock shows an inverse relation between an expert's fame and their capability to make accurate predictions - and notes that their behaviour often matches category one predicters.

However, the article is part of a series that also includes an essay by a futurologist who fits seamlessly into both categories. He reports on solar energy developments, offering balanced views on future potential. Yet on wind, he exhibits negative bias and one-sided views. The expert points to public resentment against big wind farms, wind-power surpluses hampering Germany's energy transition and high offshore costs all as a status quo without prospects for improvement.


Every new year invites reflection and evaluation of past predictions. Predictions that fail to materialise still offer great learning experiences. These are said to be essential for the advancement of science and, therefore, are not by definition bad. Few will regret that the world did not end on 21 December 2012, and that the euro survived.

In last month's Windpower Monthly we selected our top products of 2012. The top three larger turbines all started as prototypes in 2004 and were developed at a time when nobody really knew how to design such large machines. Nine years on, all are making their wind-industry mark, but initial predictions made at the turn of the century for a speedy offshore wind-market kick-off proved far too optimistic. For the manufacturers, having put in money and effort, the combination of slow market development and project delays at least brought them extra time to test, improve and upgrade their new products.


In the drivetrain category we picked the doubly fed induction generator (DFIG) as an enduring wind-industry winner. This technology was predicted to be obsolete in the mid 1990s, before Tacke Windtechnik introduced it in a 1.5MW variable speed turbine. Doom was again predicted in 2003 when German utility E.on Netz announced new compulsory grid requirements for wind operators in its supply area from January 2004. Yet major turbine manufacturer GE's 2012 switch from permanent magnet generators to DFIG shows a willingness to adapt - and that technology should never be written off too early.

UK-based Blade Dynamics has developed innovative lightweight modular rotor blade technology with a clever patented blade root design. The firm aims to develop blades as long as 100 metres for future 8-10MW offshore turbines. These are expected to weigh up to 40% less than conventional blades of similar length, and Windpower Monthly's prediction is that these innovations will make a difference, which led us to select it as best blade.

For innovation, we picked a hub generator design that fully separates rotor torque from rotor bending loads, promoting standardising and widening supply chain choice. Our prediction is that this should significantly support industry's efforts to cut costs through standardisation and industrialisation.

Recently I spoke to Siemens CTO Henrik Stiesdal about the launch of a new 4MW turbine. He noted that whenever a new product is being developed, engineers think that all further possibilities have been exhausted. But the potential for future technological innovation is non-predictable and continues to surprise us.

I am positive that this year will again produce a wealth of new ideas and solutions showing that an economic crisis does not stop innovation but fuels it. Whose predictions will prove right or wrong remains to be seen.

Eize de Vries is Windpower Monthly's technology and market trends consultant.

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