Coronavirus outbreak exposes our reliance on China

Too early to tell would be a fair summary of the wind industry's judgment on the extent to which the coronavirus outbreak will affect global turbine production and installations in 2020.

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But it is already clear that it will have a significant impact even if the contagion is contained quickly. Consultancy Wood Mackenzie’s "best-case scenario" is a 10% fall in China’s installations this year.

If production hasn’t returned to normal levels by the end of March, then it could be much more severe.

The knock-on effects of a slowdown in China’s manufacturing output will be felt outside the country. The US, the world’s second-biggest wind market, looks the most vulnerable, as it works to tight schedules to qualify for federal tax relief.

Any hold-up in the supply of components — blades and main bearings seem most at risk — threatens the ability of developers to meet their installation deadlines, jeopardising the economic viability of the projects.

The wind industry is, of course, not the only one feeling the pinch from quarantines, travel restrictions and closed factories.

Vehicle and vessel manufacturers, solar-PV panel and battery producers are being similarly affected.

China’s manufacturing muscle has played a key role in speeding up and cutting the costs of global industrial development for more than a decade now.

Even a brief curtailment of that output will have an impact beyond its borders.

Wind and hydrogen

Too early to tell might also apply to how far away we are from the large-scale production of hydrogen from electrolysis fed by renewable energy, a crucial component in the decarbonising of the heating and transport sectors.

The technology is well-understood, but economic viability depends on further falls in the costs of green-electricity production, mainly wind and solar PV, and sharp reductions in the costs of electrolysers.

Both appear to be on the right trajectory, though the latter has furthest to go.

Interest in the sector is growing rapidly.

Green-hydrogen specialist Lhyfe is working on an electrolysis demonstrator plant located near a small wind farm in north-west France that will produce hydrogen to power a fleet of buses and refuse trucks.

Ørsted’s 1,4GW Hornsea 2 offshore wind project, due online in 2022, will be host to a research project to model production of green hydrogen from a 100MW electrolyser system.

Investment and more research is required, but the role wind can play in affordable green hydrogen production grows more evident by the day.

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