Steady technology transfer to China

A small German engineering company has become a key player in the explosive growth of China's wind power sector, providing the blueprints for Chinese companies to make their own wind turbines across a growing range of sizes

China's rapid growth as a wind power market has drawn most of the industry's leading turbine manufacturers to establish factories in the country, with Gamesa, Vestas, GE and Suzlon last year's top four foreign wind plant suppliers. But the foreign company making the deepest mark on the business in China is none of these. That title goes to Aerodyn Energiesysteme, a small independent turbine engineering and design company from the German town of Rendsburg. It is Aerodyn expertise that lies behind many a Chinese wind turbine manufacturing start-up- -- and will most likely continue to do so in the years ahead.

"Most of the machines built in China [by local companies] are based on Aerodyn designs," says Lars Klett, from the company's Shanghai office. He is referring to the bulk of the 750 kW wind turbines produced and installed by Chinese companies, as well as a string of multi-megawatt units soon to be brought to market by some of China's most respected engineering companies. While Aerodyn is not the only foreign firm selling wind turbine design expertise to Chinese companieswww -- Austria's Windtec (now owned by American Superconductor Corporation) and British consultancy Garrad Hassan are doing so too -- its reach has been wider.

Aerodyn, founded in 1983, has been part of the European wind industry scene since the beginning of the modern wind industry. Over the past decade it has developed 12 different turbine types for customers around the world. These include the much heralded 5 MW offshore turbines now being built and marketed by Multibrid and Bard Engineering in Europe, as well as two 2 MW and four 1.5 MW turbines, says Aerodyn's Markus Rees.

Aerodyn founder and owner Sönke Siegfriedsen is one of three nominees for the European Patent Office's 2008 inventor of the year award for small and medium sized enterprises/research. The jury is looking at inventions patented and successfully marketed between 1993 and 2002. Siegfriedsen's contribution is a means to protect offshore wind turbines from corrosion, for which he lodged a patent application in 1999. This technology has been used in the design of Multibrid's 5 MW machine.

The company now has 54 employees around the world, most of them in Germany. But Aerodyn's business in China has become so significant in the four years since it signed its first design contract with a Chinese firm that Siegfriedsen is now located in the Shanghai office, together with nine staff. "Within five years an annual five gigawatts of machines based on Aerodyn designs could be installed in China, or even more with a positive market development," the company says.

Into China

The ubiquitous 750 kW machine comes from an Aerodyn design originally sold to shipbuilder Husumer Schiffswerft back in the 1990s, one of the companies that later formed German wind turbine maker Repower. It was mainly Repower that passed on the blueprints to Chinese companies. Aerodyn's first Chinese design and technology transfer contract came in 2004 for the development of a rotor blade for a 1.5 MW machine. By the end of 2005 it had another blade development contract and four turbine design deals with Chinese firms. One of the turbine deals fell by the wayside, but three progressed, involving the design of a 1.5 MW unit and two 2 MW machines. A further deal for a 1.5 MW design followed with another company in 2006.

The two companies working with Aerodyn on the 2 MW units are Shanghai Electric's Sewind and Haizhuang Wind Power Equipment Company, a subsidiary of state-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation. The two relating to the 1.5 MW designs are Hewind, a subsidiary of Huayi Electric, and Mingyang Wind Power, one of four subsidiaries of the privately owned Mingyang Electric Group, which is to supply 900 MW of its Aerodyn units to GreenHunter Energy for projects in North America (Windpower Monthly, January 2008). While these companies openly discuss their partnerships with Aerodyn, the German firm is reluctant to confirm the names of its customers, citing reasons of commercial confidence.

The first prototype wind turbines under these megawatt-scale turbine deals, a 1.5 MW unit and a 2 MW design, have been undergoing tests since the last quarter of 2007. Prototypes of the others are due for installation before the end of the year, says Aerodyn.

Under the agreements, Aerodyn helps with the designs, but the purchaser owns the intellectual property rights to the machines. As the design partner, Aerodyn may retain some options for future use. Already, one of the Chinese companies has decided to grant licences for its Aerodyn-designed 1.5 MW machine to two additional Chinese companies, who will market it under their own names, reports Aerodyn.

Ramping up

Production ramp up will take time. None of the Chinese customers is expected to build even 50 turbines this year, although "some may come close despite shortages in component supply," says Klett. Within two years, however, all Aerodyn licensees are planning to raise annual output to 300-500 units. By 2009, more than 1 GW of capacity in China, at least, will be based on new Aerodyn designs, the company predicts. "This figure was actually reached both last year and this year if the older 750 kW turbine is taken into account," Klett adds.

"All four customers have either signed follow-up contracts or are negotiating to do so," continues Klett. "We expect to have a steady customer base in China over the coming years." Hewind, for one, has suggested that Aerodyn is likely to be its design partner for a planned 3 MW offshore machine (Windpower Monthly, April 2008). Establishing close working relationships with its customers is vital, says Aerodyn. At the company's Shanghai office, customer support and effective client communication are top priorities. "Both the German and Chinese sides need to understand each other's different approaches," Klett says. Aerodyn's experience shows that meetings at short notice are essential in critical phases of a project to avoid misunderstandings.

Aerodyn is not going to branch into wind project construction in China and "will not change this policy in the short to medium term." The strategy will be to closely watch the market "with a view to identifying possible customers with good potential for future cooperation," says Klett. The company is developing new products and taking its first steps towards offering blade and turbine design for production under licence, but in future retaining some intellectual property rights. Last year it developed Aeroblade, a blade model for 1.5 MW, 2 MW and 2.5 MW machines. "We have so far sold 11 licences for Aeroblade, including to Chinese company Sinoi," says Rees. "Four licensees have built prototypes and began series production in late summer 2008."

Super compact

Another unnamed Chinese company has also signed a licence contract for Aerodyn's new 2.5-3.5 MW SCD ("super compact design") turbine technology, a model that attracted much interest from engineers in the industry when it was unveiled a year ago. The first prototypes will be installed next year, says Siegfriedsen. He declines to give further details.

Aerodyn is further working on a 2 MW turbine, dubbed Aeromaster 2, for production under licence. Four promising candidates for Aeromaster 2 licence agreements are currently negotiating with Aerodyn, says Rees, although no deals have yet been struck. China again seems the most likely destination for this product.

With a particular focus on China, Aerodyn will continue to offer turbine designs tailored to customers' demands as well as sell licences for production of its technology, while trying to keep a tight reign on growth. "Over the next five years, growth will be stabilised and there will be no significant increases in staff," says Rees, who declines to reveal a sales figure. "Aerodyn will remain an independent company," and is definitely not for sale. "The value is in the heads of the employees."

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