The Right Selling Point

Drawing on reports from three major wind conferences the leader argues that lobbyists' promotion of wind is misdirected. An over concentration on selling wind as an inexpensive means of generating electricity is slowing its development. Politicians and utilities are waiting for wind to get as cheap as the lobbyists promise instead of encouraging full scale development now. In the meantime wind's embedded generation value is forgotten. A free market in electricity, emerging worldwide, holds great potential for wind power. But renewables lobbyists must present accounts of the value of wind with lucidity -- and downplay doubtful sounding promises of ever lower costs. Arguments extolling the value of wind to a supply system will also help utilities accept the technology. In the emerging free competitive market, wind power will stand a better chance in the long run than being made to rely on government programmes which are open to abuse.

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Three major wind events in as many weeks -- this issue is stuffed to its staples with conference reports. From Germany, the US and Canada, they provide an interesting reflection of the issues of the day. A general attitude seems to prevail among politicians and the lay world that renewables are a good thing -- and the technology should be developed, just in case it is needed one day. In other words, they are saying the time is not yet ripe for clean power.

Why is this so? In the past it was argued that the technology was not ready. But if wind has done nothing else, it has defied just about every prediction ever made in the early 1980s about its rate of development, including those of the most starry eyed proponents. A poor technology, battling against all the odds, would never have achieved this -- witness the upcoming fate of nuclear technology, which instead of exceeding expectations has never reached them. No, there are other reasons today for why wind is still on the back burner.

One of these can be directly laid at the feet of the industry's own lobbyists. In past years, an over-concentration on promising ever lower costs -- as if manufacturers had only just discovered the necessity -- is now having nasty repercussions. Decision makers are leaning back, folding their arms, and waiting. For what? For a promise to materialise that has no fixed point. Meantime, few know of wind's real selling point, its intrinsic value. Not just its price, but all the other benefits, too.

Using value as a selling point is an age old marketing technique. It works. By not using it, the fight is being made far too easy for wind's detractors. In Hannover, the gloves came off in heated exchanges between the utility establishment and what it regards as amateur upstarts. But attacks on wind from the likes of Hans-Dieter Harig, chairman of German giant Preussenelektra, are beginning to curl even the toes of his own employees. According to Harig, talk of using wind energy to its full potential is "dreaming of worlds which aren't there." Harig's hypothesis appears to be based in a world long past.

Across the Atlantic in the New World, though, utility bosses seem more prepared to accept change, recognising that wind offers the diversity and flexibility that modern markets demand. Many have stated that wind has a role in integrated resource planning (IRP) -- a positive attitude reflected in their willingness to be major sponsors of the American Wind Energy Association's annual conference. Thus, it is a sad irony indeed, that the political commitment to renewables in the US has so rapidly waned. Until the next pollution scare grabs the headlines back from the current crop of America's social ills, energy policy will not have the high priority it deserves -- and this at a time when the entire power market is undergoing a radical restructuring. There is an opening for wind at the table, though, thanks to IRP. It will be up to renewables lobbyists to make the most of it. Accounts of the value of wind must be presented with lucidity -- and doubtful sounding promises of ever lower costs downplayed.

Meantime the US wind industry is looking abroad; this was the clear message of the Windpower '95 conference. Entry of Americans into European markets -- and other areas so far dominated by Europeans -- is healthy competition. Prices will follow a path mapped by market rules, keeping the business free of the cancer which has so often been introduced when governments have launched programmes to force costs down. Such programmes have all too often done more to encourage clever manipulation of the prevailing system than promote the development of good technology at sensible prices.

Not that backs should be turned on the US. A pause of three to four years while the market sorts itself out is what is happening, not sudden death. And there is a chink of bright light worth exploring. It seems the infamous Contract with America could have something up its sleeve to help get a "people's market" moving for single turbines and small clusters. The contract proposes abolishing the Alternative Minimum Tax, long regarded as a barrier to small scale investment. Small turbine firms, too, are likely to be a first beneficiary of market restructuring -- a domestic boom is being predicted by one.

Like the Hannover fair, last month's renewables event in Canada concentrated on commercial opportunities. Held as it was next to the seat of government, its aim of attracting politicians seems to have worked. Many dropped in to have a look -- and many were clearly impressed at how ready renewables are for the market. But the utility sector's entrenched interests are tough opponents here, too. "No more than a niche market" was the comment about wind from one giant. Here, as in Germany and the US, it will be arguments extolling the benefits and value of wind, both to a modern and integrated power system and to a society keen to preserve its planet, that will win the day.

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