A MORE OPEN APPROACH

A look at the status of European wind energy reveals both a significant technological development and a price reduction by almost one third. Much of the credit goes to the European Union's Joule and Thermie programmes. The European Commission, however, ought to be more open about it's criteria for selection of projects as well as be made responsible for immediately releasing details of projects selected once the final choice is made.

For this special EWEC conference issue, published on the eve of what promises to be the biggest wind event of the year, we took a good hard look at the status of European wind energy. Our conclusions are drawn from the welter of hard facts and figures just released in the 1992-93 report from the Eurowin data base -- a European Union (EU) sponsored project which collects and processes performance reports from over 1000 MW of wind power plant. The overriding message gleaned from the data is that wind energy technology has got better and better, bringing down costs by an impressive 30% in just three years. A wind produced kilowatt hour is now cheaper to generate than even the most optimistic predictions of a few years ago.

While it would be a bald oversimplification to suggest that this reduction in costs is a measure of the success of Europe's spending on research and development, a deal of credit should go to the EU's Joule and Thermie programmes. Advances in technology development have been speeded by their existence. In theory, Joule supports research and development projects, while Thermie backs technology demonstration and dissemination, although the demarcation between the two has become decidedly blurred of late. Together with national spending on R&D in most of the windy countries of Europe -- with the notable exception of France -- these programmes have poured millions of dollars into the technology. Public dollars, that is.

When a project receives cash from taxpayers' pockets it enters the public domain. Some safeguards of commercial interests are necessary, but one of the main arguments for these pan European programmes is the importance of information exchange. Pooling knowledge saves time and money. It is also becomes possible for a broad selection of industry members to prevent cliques of "experts" from barking up the wrong tree for years on end. Why, then, is it so hard to get information on these programmes out of the European Commission?

The annual selections of wind projects -- the allocation of millions of European Currency Units -- is never published. It just "becomes official." In practice people who would benefit from knowing (sooner rather than later) who is doing what in wind R&D either have to rely on a determined press to wean the facts out of EC officials, or attend an (expensive) conference where the same officials might and might not divulge the information required. This year's Joule selections are a case in point. The chosen few were picked months ago and the necessary paperwork has been shuffling to and from Brussels ever since. But details of the projects and contractors have not been released, despite considerable pressure from industry representatives. Neither will they be until this month's EWEC conference in Greece.

For one contractor this state of affairs has caused untold frustration, not to mention bitterness. The project in question has been in dire need of publicity for months. Without publicity it threatens to fall far short of its original intentions. Yet with no official confirmation of its existence -- or the existence of 20 or so other major R&D initiatives -- publicity has been hard to come by.

All wind energy projects in the public domain should become public knowledge as soon as possible. Publication in detail of their aims would help prevent duplication of the same work in national wind programmes. Even better it would most likely encourage more cross border co-operation than the behind-closed-doors approach currently in vogue. Free access to information would also curtail much of the bitter griping about waste of money on R&D. Proper public relations would also raise the profile of the programmes and attract a higher calibre of applicant. This year's Thermie programme selections -- largely of projects and companies far removed from the mainstream of the wind business -- are a good illustration of the value of this argument. Only two years ago EC officials were complaining about too many wind companies, yet this year they support a growing number of newcomers because of a dearth of other applicants.

EU support of wind is valuable and important. It seems silly, not to say irresponsible, to pursue a closed policy on access to information. Regular bulletins of projects in progress -- and official, timely publication of project selections -- would win approval from the people the programmes are intended to serve, instead of alienating them.

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