Viewpoint: Science and business need to work together

For three days in late September, the European wind industry and the scientific community met in Hamburg for a massive joint exhibition and a more modest conference session. Rarely has the distance between the business and science sides of the wind world been as clear as at these events.

The event was spread over two venues, about 500 metres apart. On one side were nine packed commercial halls with a wide range of exhibitors, with seemingly ad hoc presentations being given in every nook, cranny and exhibition stand.

On the other side was a comparatively serene congress centre, with several parallel, sparsely attended presentations and poster sessions taking place.

There were commonalities between the issues addressed at the conference and the trends seen in the exhibition area. Digitalisation, big data, automation and what these can do for the optimisation of assets and reducing the levelised cost of energy (LCOE) are good examples of issues discussed by both sides.

However, looking at the size of the audiences, the quality of the debate and the number of interventions in the official conference presentations, we need to consider whether the concerns of the industry are really being addressed.

Walking the 500 metres from the conference to the exhibition pavilion was like stepping into a different world; a slightly overcrowded one where logistics and operations value-chain companies are increasing their presence as the number of operational assets and the focus on offshore increases.

In this world, presentations and talks were improvised around individual stands and official presentation spaces had audiences rivalling the numbers seen across the park.

Is the business side trying to address the lack of relevant sessions by creating their own, on their own terms and in a common place?

Does industry feel the conference sessions are still too focused on academic endeavours that — though necessary and having served us well in the past — now somehow lack the more practical aspects of delivering safer, smarter and cheaper wind energy to the grid in an ever challenging post-subsidy, auction-driven European market?

Is the physical separation between the presentation sessions and the exhibition floor symptomatic of a genuine distancing?

Was the strategy of combining the exhibition and summit the correct one, or do we need to go further and combine wind, solar and storage under the same roof, since the challenges are perhaps better addressed in a more holistic way?

The science is, of course, important and needed in events of this dimension. Technical presentations still need to be the rule, not the exception.

We do not want the European industry's prime technical and scientific event to follow the example of the RenewableUK conference, where complaining about current renewable policy seems to be the only item on the agenda.

We need the scientists and engineers to provide us with the solutions to decrease the LCOE so that wind, or indeed a combination of wind, solar and storage, can compete in the "normal" market and offer not only electricity, but also other ancillary services grid operators need.

Rising to the challenge

Scientists are recognising the value empirical, data-driven analysis can provide in helping to understand complex issues.

Machine-learning algorithms are being developed and used to address several issues not yet fully understood or resolved by science, such as ice detection or turbine performance.

Also, data mining as a way of optimising assets or as early fault-detection systems is now common in research conducted by many institutions.

There were a couple of sessions that tried to bring discussions on offshore investment and the auction systems, and even Brexit's implications for industry, to the table.

However, it is not apparent that scientists and engineers are rising to that challenge, or perhaps the selection process has filtered out some good work that is being done for lack of perceived academic credentials.

It may also be the case that the communication of this work has not been done in the most efficient way.

Scientists and engineers are not always the best presenters, neglecting to conclude on anything practical and focusing too much on relatively small incremental scientific gains and future avenues of research the present work may have opened up.

This can be frustrating for the pragmatic, fast-paced mind of the business person.

We need to come closer together and understand each other better. That 500-metre gap was a small physical distance, but at the same time, worlds apart.

Carla Ribeiro is head of department, project development, at DNV GL Energy