Europe's wind sector faces difficult decisions ahead

EUROPE: Europe's wind industry looks rather like the proverbial car at the crossroads. Only in this case, the traffic lights remain stuck on amber and the signposts have been taken down.

Thinking big… Vestas has turned a corner and the 8MW V164 is currently the world’s largest turbine
Thinking big… Vestas has turned a corner and the 8MW V164 is currently the world’s largest turbine

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The fallout from the economic crash of 2008 continues to have a baleful affect on wind power development across the continent, even if the worst appears to be behind us now — although eurozone members in southern Europe might not agree. But the fundamental cause of the stuck-at-the-junction position is the profound failure of political leadership. Governments throughout Europe remain fixated by the short term, rarely lifting their gaze beyond the next time their electorates are asked to cast their votes.

Yet climate change, which governments say they will tackle, cannot be addressed with this approach. It needs long-term thinking and planning, co-operation and co-ordination across national divides, acceptance and understanding of the science and research. It requires standing up to the not-in-my-backyard, or nimby, brigades, so virulent in some countries that a new acronym has been coined: banana — build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything.

In short, it requires making tough decisions, which politicians of all hues claim to be keen on, except, it seems, when it comes to reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.

Diverse markets

Of course, Europe is not one wind power market but many. Beneath the umbrella of the European Union stand countries with widely different energy resources and needs, population demographics and degrees of economic prosperity. A one-size-fits-all package is unlikely to be appropriate across the continent.

The European Commission (EC) has tried to find a compromise, but its package of targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and increases in renewable-energy generation has received less than unanimous approval. The European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) has been particularly critical, claiming that the EC has "turned its back on jobs, economic growth and energy security", but it is important to recognise that this view is not shared by all EWEA members.

As we report, the offshore chief of one of Europe's largest wind developers is not convinced of the need for country-specific binding renewable-energy targets. Jonathan Cole of Iberdrola argues that they can distort the market, pushing the wrong technology or the wrong projects. He is as frustrated as anyone by the political and legislative uncertainty that bedevils the industry, but he believes that wind power has to compete with other forms of energy generation on hard-headed economic grounds. Finding ways to cut the costs of offshore wind ranks well above the political wrangling in his book.

Encouraging signs

This special report on the European wind-power market does contain some more encouraging news. We have taken a close look at one of the giants of the industry, Vestas, which after several horrendous years of punishing cuts to its workforce and the spilling of much blood on the boardroom floor, finally looks to be turning the corner.

Another Denmark-based titan, Dong Energy, has a positive tale to tell, although somewhat clouded by the controversial buy-in of Goldman Sachs. Europe's offshore market has been hit by a number of high-profile project cancellations of late, but Dong is pushing ahead on offshore developments with bullish confidence.

And finally...

A modest increase in installed capacity across the continent during 2013 has been significantly outweighed by the growth in wind-generated electricity. This cannot be attributed simply to higher winds. Indeed, in some countries, Germany for example, average wind speeds were rather lower than in previous years. Rather, it would appear that wind power is simply becoming more efficient, producing a bigger bang for each buck.

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