Interview - GE's Harris plans European push

EUROPE: In July, Cliff Harris took over from Stephan Ritter as general manager for GE's European renewable energy business. The company was the biggest turbine manufacturer in the world in 2012, thanks to its strong US sales. However, this year is likely to present a different challenge.

GE general manager for renewable energy Europe Cliff Harris
GE general manager for renewable energy Europe Cliff Harris

Three months after taking up his post, Harris talked to Windpower Monthly about strategy and developments for the next three years, highlighting a "strong" German order book for 2014 installation after virtually no installations in the country in recent years. He also spoke about GE's intensive work on developing higher towers at a viable cost, and growing interest in wind-turbine battery systems.

Originally from Birmingham, a UK industrial heartland, Harris enthused on his move to headquarters in Salzbergen, Germany, where GE has a wind turbine assembly works. "It's an exciting industry, fast-paced, dynamic, international," he said before explaining his plans.

"GE had a good wind market share of 6-7% of new installations in Europe in 2012, and we have been investing in a technology suitable for Europe — the 2.5MW platform dubbed Brilliant," he began, citing Make Consulting data. From this baseline there will be three main areas of action for Europe.

"First, we'll continue to invest in developing and improving our technology so that more wind sites become accessible. GE headquarters explicitly supports this investment," he stressed.

"Second, we'll look closely at different geographical areas." Most good wind sites have been used, the remaining sites being considered are less economic, so GE is developing new products to change this situation, he said.

"Third, we are looking at markets virtually untapped but on the verge of growing wind capacity, such as Turkey and Russia, which is just developing a renewables strategy," he said. GE has worked extensively in the Russian gas market and is examining wind possibilities with partners that Harris declined to name at this stage.

Core markets

GE's core markets in Europe are Germany, the UK and Ireland, France and Nordic countries. In Germany, GE installed no wind turbines in 2012, and just one in 2013, "but orders for 2014 are strong", Harris said. The new orders could take turbine output at Salzbergen to more than 350 turbines in 2014, or around 70% of output capacity.

GE's success appears to have resulted from changing its approach. Traditionally, GE has good connections with large utilities. "Since early 2013 we have been looking at other players, especially the numerous smaller, municipal energy companies and smaller wind developers."

Furthermore, the recently recruited Andreas von Bobart in the newly-created post of general manager of GE's German wind business has built a sales and commercial team focused closely on the German market. "This is paying dividends, and the strategy will be applied in other key markets such as the UK and France," Harris said.

Technology focus

On the technology side, GE is also concentrating on reducing costs of high towers, a must for areas with lower wind speeds. One partner is Max Bögl Wiesner which supplied the hybrid concrete and steel tower for its one turbine installation in Germany this year. "The norm is 120 metres, but we have designs for 140 metres and are working on getting cost-effectiveness. In the US, GE is looking at lattice towers — steel constructions enclosed in an architectural membrane – and whether these could be economic in Europe," said Harris.

GE has also generated interest in Europe with its new turbine battery system, aimed at providing storage for up to around 30 minutes to give more predictability and less fluctuation in wind power. "We have a battery range so we can flex to predictability requirements in each national market. There has been much interest from project developers about retrofitting for turbines. We hope for firm contracts for the 2.5MW turbine plus battery system before end-2013," he said.

Wait and see on offshore

Harris is downbeat on offshore wind, however. GE has developed a 4.1MW offshore turbine. The prototype was commissioned at Gothenburg harbour in Sweden in December 2012 and is operating at 99% availability, according to the company. "We have the machine, and proved that we can make one. But now we must find a way to make it cost-effective. The current strategy is to watch and see how the market develops. We must find projects that make money for the customer. We would proceed if the right project came along," Harris said.

On the financial side, he said: "GE Energy Financial Services is our partner in developing the business, which is great for leveraging financial capability to help projects. Access to finance is there for the right project, it's part of our strategy for growth."

Overall, Harris stressed the European market has new significance for GE. It's common knowledge that the US industry is expected to struggle from end-2014 due to uncertainty over the production tax credit, so GE is keen to look to Europe for new business, Harris said.

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