When the worldwide economic crisis started in 2008, the global wind sector was booming and many leading wind-turbine and component suppliers had order books that were full to bursting. Thanks to the industry's long lead times, particularly in offshore, the negative effects were initially limited. Now, however, just over five years later, the impact in wind is still being felt.
During a boom, anything produced can be sold easily to any number of eager buyers, so the push to develop new products is not at its strongest. There are indeed indications of some wind-turbine suppliers having slowed down research and development (R&D) efforts during the easy period stretching from about 2007 into as late as 2010 — two years after the economic crash — before stepping them up again.
But an evaluation of the impact of a lull in R&D in the wind industry needs to take into account the subsidy cuts that have been taking place in many countries. Market challenges tend to bring fresh solutions through new approaches, so while a drop in R&D work may negatively affect product developments in the short term, the market continues to prove that tighter R&D budgets do not necessarily produce poorer results, nor do they jeopardise turbine bankability demands.
Take, for example, the emergence of dedicated low-wind turbines with supersize rotors and high towers for maximum wind capture. These designs - first announced in 2010, when wind was just coming out of its boom period - could effectively counteract some of the subsidy cuts in markets with average wind conditions and compensate for the near absence of any support mechanism in markets such as Brazil.
These low-wind turbines came at a time suitable for Germany's ambitious energy transition programme, launched in 2011. They opened up new potential for building projects in low-wind inland sites, especially when accompanied by new concrete-steel hybrid or other towers with hub heights as tall as 150 metres.
Evolutionary advances versus radical design
Low-wind development was largely built on previous wind technology, adding key innovations that focused on the new-generation long, slender blades and advanced load control. Such additions of innovative product features to previous designs is an ongoing trend in the wind industry, requiring less time for R&D than a full redesign, and cutting risk and cost. The new 3MW onshore volume class has seen evolutionary advances of already proven, smaller-size turbine platforms. Tower advances for low-wind sites have also been largely incremental, although there have been major new designs such as the bolted shell steel tower developed by Siemens and Ib Andresen Industri.
While the risks of incremental developments are often significantly lower, long-term advancement of technology also requires radical innovative designs. Higher initial overall risks and costs can be expected, but the developers and investors can also expect superior, longer-term overall gains.
Siemens took a bold move in 2009 when it introduced a novel lightweight 3MW direct-drive turbine with an in-house developed permanent-magnet generator (PMG), supplementing its proven 2.3MW and 3.6MW geared volume turbine range. The 3MW turbine served as a technology blueprint for a much larger 6MW offshore sister model, which was introduced only two years later — another R&D achievement.
This move contrasts with most turbine suppliers' strategy, which — regardless of market conditions — is to amend and adapt the technology they know best.
Enercon continuously refines its direct-drive turbine technology, for example offering generators with either air or liquid cooling. It introduced next-generation slender rotor blades in 2012 and a year later added slender segmented blades. The production-automation technology for these was also developed in-house, another major R&D achievement.
For offshore applications, modest product development with a focus on reliability and creating a solid track record is key. Most offshore turbines remain based on the small number of 3.6-5MW models first introduced in 2004. Their successor models entered the market from about 2009 and have gradually taken over - the Siemens 3.6MW turbine is the key example.
The most recent second-generation 6-8MW offshore turbines will gradually reinforce these ranks, starting this year, and will feature a wider variety in drivetrain solutions, including direct-drive and medium-speed. Compared with the first models, they generally feature a more favourable head mass and/or a larger rotor-swept area per installed megawatt — borne out of gradual evolution of the original design and a parallel primary goal to drive down cost of energy.
That is not to say that radical designs are out of the picture. Two 10MW class vertical-axis turbine designs, the Aerogenerator X and VertAx Wind, have been under development since 2009 but have not reached the prototype stage yet.
A rather radical 6MW two-bladed Aerodyn SCD 6.0 downwind turbine developed from 2011 for hurricane-prone offshore conditions has prototype installation planned in the next few months. Aerodyn's initial 3MW SCD 3.0 two-bladed machine, which started developing in 2009, has a small series operating in China, where the technology is licensed by Ming Yang.
Dutch engineering consultancy Mecal specialises in turbine design and has first-hand experience of demand for R&D. Business developer Frans Brughuis agrees there has been a slowdown recently. "During the past year, our big Asian clients were holding back on placing orders for turbine projects, partly for financial reasons, and, in China, also due to the fact that there were simply too many suppliers in the market," he says. But Brughuis believes the market for turbine development is picking up, both in Korea and China, and more recently for the established European suppliers.
EFFECTIVE SPENDING INNOVATIONS FAIL TO LOWER THE LEVELISED COSTS, FINDS JAMES QUILTER
On the face of it, and despite the global recession, the wind sector has seen plenty of innovation in recent years. Several manufacturers are completing testing of 6MW-plus offshore turbines, while onshore low-wind machines continue to advance.
Yet the view is rather different when looking at the levelised cost of energy (LCOE) for wind power, which has changed little recently. Levelised cost is a lifetime average cost per MWh including capital, finance, operating costs and expected generation.
In the years until 2005, with explosive growth and industrialisation, falling cost of wind energy was constant. Then, rising commodity prices and high demand led to the cost of energy actually rising for two years. Wind costs began falling again around 2008, but has never picked up the momentum of former years and has now fallen behind other forms of renewable energy.
This is highlighted by research analyst Lazard, which found that 2012 LCEO figures for wind of $48 (low) - $95 (high)/MWh fell in 2013 by a mere $3 for the low figure, with no drop in the high figure. Offshore's LCOE was static at $155/MWh. Yet, photovoltaic's 2012 figure of $102-$142/MWh dropped to $64-$89/MWh in 2013.
Hiren Shah, CEO of Indian wind turbine manufacturer Global Wind Power, which licenses designs and builds machines for the Indian market, says that larger rotors and targeting of low-wind sites were responsible for the LCOE fall in recent years.
But this is a relatively short term gain and is unlikely to drive the industry forward. He says: "There are limits to how large you can design a rotor. I have a 1.5MW machine with a 89-metre rotor. But with the 1.5MW you can't go to 100 metres, if you want that you have to go for a 2MW turbine.
"With 2MW, people are selling 103-110-metre rotors. You can maybe get to 114 but then you get to 2.5MW. There has been a huge jump in blade sizes over the last few years but now it has become more incremental."
There is one last sign that technological growth in the wind sector may be slowing down. According to the latest figures from the Clean Energy Patent Growth Index, wind energy patent applications for the third quarter of 2013 fell by 21% compared with the same period in 2012, and 5% compared with the previous quarter.
In all, there were 146 wind patent applications, 51 fewer than the most popular clean energy patent category, fuel cells.
With governments demanding a reduction in costs, responsibility falls to the manufacturers to meet this. There is arguably little point in developing turbines with giant blades, innovative towers and record-breaking generating capacity, if the cost of energy is not reduced.