With wind power taking a battering in Australia's media, the industry could have been forgiven for being a bit downbeat at its annual gathering, hosted in late July by the Australian Wind Energy Association (AusWEA). Nothing was further from the truth. The fossil fuel lobby might be taking full advantage of the federal government's refusal to boost the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET), but for delegates gathered in chilly Launceston, Tasmania, for AusWind 2004, this was a time for getting down to business.
Most of the 27 exhibitors and the 320 conference delegates who made the long trip to the sixth AusWEA event were clearly undeterred by the failure of the energy white paper, Securing Australia's Energy Future, to boost MRET as expected (Windpower Monthly, July 2004). As one delegate put it, the white paper is simply a "bump in the road." The attitude is indicative of a new maturity in the Australian industry, which seems determined to overcome opposition by ensuring good communication of the facts and letting the technology speak for itself.
That is the only route to success, delegates were told by David Still, a former chairman of the British Wind Energy Association and now with the UK government's Department of Trade and Industry. "Good communication is about busting myths. The issues confronting Australia, and they are issues, not barriers, are the same as elsewhere: people, aviation, wildlife and the transmission grid," he said, adding firmly that "intermittency will not become a problem." By "intermittency" Still was referring to the variability of power output from wind plant and the in-built ability of modern power systems to balance fluctuations in supply as well as in demand.
Peter Rae of local wind power developer Hydro Tasmania agreed. "There is a lot of work to be done to make sure the decision makers in this country are sufficiently informed," he said. "The key message we can give to government is that the symphony of all renewable technologies can cut fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions." He stressed: "We must adequately answer the attacks made and we must take a professional approach. We are a just a rag-tag group if we are not united."
Converging on price
The launch by AusWEA at the conference of a study highlighting the potential for over 13,000 direct Australian manufacturing job-years for the wind industry if the renewables target is increased to 10% by 2010 was a welcome step toward that end. So, too, the association's report, Cost Convergence of Wind Power and Conventional Generation in Australia, which points out that Australian wind power will rival fossil fuel costs before 2020.
"The results from government and industry sources in the USA, Europe and Australia are all forecasting ongoing price declines for wind energy of between 30 and 50 per cent over the next 15 years," said AusWEA's Karl Mallon, co-author of the report. "With continuing economies of scale in Australia, wind projects installed in 2020 can expect to be cost competitive with fossil fuel energy supplies." This will only happen, though, through continuing demand, which, he added, means increasing MRET.
The industry optimism has been helped by the renewed support of a series of state governments who have openly criticised the government's white paper (Windpower Monthly, August 2004). Talk from the states has centred on the need to increase MRET from its existing 9500 GWh of new renewable energy a year by 2010. But the federal government, preparing for a general election, has ruled out any increase, despite its own earlier review of the legislation, which recommends raising the target and extending the lifespan of MRET beyond 2020.
"It is a disappointing attitude that is jeopardising a proposed wind farm blade manufacturing plant in north-west Tasmania by Danish company Vestas," noted Tasmania's new premier, Paul Lennon. "Failure to increase the MRET defies international trends and is out of step with community expectations," he added in his opening speech.
With the Tasmanian government hit by a wave of negative press on its environmental record, particularly on logging, Lennon was clearly keen to publicly flourish his green credentials. "Tasmania is a leading generator of wind power, but our efforts are being undermined by the federal government which is short sighted and election motivated," he said. Lennon's energy minister, Bryan Green, added that if the federal government will not support an increase in MRET then Tasmania will find an alternative market framework for wind power.
Lennon and Green both repeated the joint pledge made previously by state energy ministers from Tasmania, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia to work towards increasing the target and introducing an emissions trading market (Windpower Monthly, August 2004). Notably absent from the conference were other state energy ministers, however, such as South Australia's Patrick Conlon. Less surprising was the absence of new federal environment minister, Ian Campbell, who has stepped into David Kemp's shoes in the run up to the federal election.
Long term optimism
Despite the lack of notables from mainland Australia, most AusWEA delegates were pleased with Lennon's message. "He could not have been more supportive of an increased MRET and his commitment to work with the other states to grow the target is very encouraging," said Colin Liebmann of wind project developer RES Southern Cross. "There continues to be strong optimism that the industry can grow beyond the short term cap imposed by the current MRET target."
Lennon was not the only one to talk targets. Increasing the MRET was still the main message being pushed forward by AusWEA's Ian Lloyd-Besson, with Corin Millais of the European Wind Energy Association backing his southern hemisphere colleague all the way. "MRET is the major driver for the renewable energy industry in Australia. There are about A$8 billion worth of projects proposed in Australia but about A$5 billion is at risk because the federal government will not increase the MRET target," said Lloyd-Besson. Installed wind power capacity has doubled in Australia in the past year to 252 MW, with a further 400 MW expected up and running within the next five months. In addition, projects totalling 5000 MW have been announced, with planning permission already granted to 1600 MW. But just 1000 MW of renewables capacity is likely to go ahead under MRET as it stands. A 10% MRET, Lloyd-Besson noted, would provide the market for all 5000 MW to proceed.
"In the next decade, wind can compete with conventional power on price," Millais added, hoping to put at least one myth firmly to rest. "Wind energy cannot be called alternative energy anymore. Wind power is not a small business these days. This decade one-third of new generating capacity in the European Union will be provided by wind power." Stressing the need for good government regulations he continued: "Europe is a world leader because there is a framework and the promotion of renewable energy is seen as a priority. Policy can constrain an industry but ambitious targets drive down costs. The most effective way to reduce costs, as Europe demonstrates, is to increase targets." On paper Australia is a key player in the wind business today, he said, but "the future will depend on the ability to persuade policy makers to increase targets. Deep political support is needed. Historically targets have been set too low."
This deep political support will be forthcoming if the Labour Party wins the coming federal election, vowed Kelvin Thomson, federal shadow environment minister. "We will begin by taking the step that the Howard government just won't take: ratify the Kyoto Protocol. By ratifying Kyoto and joining the emissions trading scheme Australia can catch up with the rest of the world," he said. "After Labour has ratified Kyoto we'll implement our agenda for meeting its goals. This means lifting the MRET to five per cent."
Transmission and siting
Politics did not entirely rule the conference. Other topics covered included technology development, grid integration for large scale projects and related transmission issues, and planning and environmental considerations.
The existing transmission system has only a finite ability to accommodate new wind generation, noted John Thompson of ElectraNET, which operates and manages the electricity transmission network throughout South Australia. Wind farm proponents, he said, will need to adopt a holistic approach to the development application process while a new framework is required for renewable energy and associated support infrastructure.
Echoing Thompson, Garrad Hassan's Matthew Bechly added that forecasts of wind power station output may become mandatory. "Accurate forecasting of wind farm production will be a critical factor to prevent significant pool price variations," he said, referring to the impact that varying volumes of wind power could have on wholesale electricity prices.
With policies varying significantly countrywide, Australia's site permit system is another key issue in need of attention, with the states of Victoria and South Australia hailed as examples of best practice. Pacific Hydro's Terry Teoh noted Victoria has strong planning guidelines which enable developers to know exactly what they need to consider from the start, while a simplified planning approach in South Australia has facilitated a strong market with 2168 MW of projects currently proposed.
With three levels of government (federal, state and local) the approach to environmental noise legislation is also inconsistent, said Peter Fearnside of Marshall Day Acoustics. "Wind farms are subject to state laws. The structure and level of funding for state environmental authorities differ, which means there are huge differences in noise limits from state to state. The lack of an Australia-wide methodology for assessment of noise from wind farms will continue to be a cause of frustration."
AusWEA's Libby Anthony was delighted with the outcome of the conference and the industry's determined attitude. "This year's conference was definitely more charged than previously, with a race between all renewables to secure a slice of a limited market," she said after. "Statements made by the Tasmanian premier and the federal shadow minister for the environment sent clear messages of an intention to push renewable energy forward despite federal government unwillingness to increase targets."
The confident mood of conference delegates was echoed by the exhibitors, though there were complaints about the small area for displays compared with last year's event. With the same number of exhibitors as in 2003, the reduction in floor space left some feeling somewhat claustrophobic, with many companies inevitably taking smaller stands than they would have preferred. Nonetheless, the big boys of wind turbine manufacturing -- Denmark's Vestas, America's GE Wind, and Spain's Gamesa -- were all present, with India's Suzlon again rubbing shoulders with those of its much larger competitors, as it has done at all the major wind events this year. Suzlon unveiled Suzlon Energy Australia. Based in Melbourne, it is headed by a former NEG Micon man, Peter Cowling, and is the first in a series of Suzlon subsidiaries in the pipeline, says the company.
Other overseas exhibitors included blade manufacturer LM Glasfiber, German Turnus Energy and the American wind monitoring company WindLogics, sharing a stand with Australian Power and Water (APW). "Our alliance with APW began after our visit to the 2003 conference and our subsequent success in working with Australian wind energy developers, utilities and other interested Australian organisations led us to exhibit this year," explained WindLogic's Karen Olson.
"The Australian market is facing similar public policy issues as the US with regard to government support, transmission access and grid issues. On the technical side, the solutions we've developed for wind resource assessment and forecasting are global, and thus it made good business sense to participate in the conference."
The UK too had a strong contingent, with stands taken by the Department of Trade and Industry, Garrad Hassan, developer Wind Prospect and grid integration specialist Econnect, among others. "It is very positive and heartening to know that most people view the white paper as just a minor setback," Econnect's Damian Stevens said. "As always, the conference and exhibition has been a great time for us to meet with our clients and suppliers as well as a good opportunity to meet companies and people new to the sector."