The flood of capital could not be coming at a better time. With demand for wind power well outstripping supply, the industry is being forced to rapidly expand on all fronts. That takes mega scale investment. Not only is more manufacturing capacity needed for just about every major component that goes into a wind turbine, but also needed is more ancillary equipment and services: more cabling, more shipping capacity, more trucks, more cranes, more specialist offshore vessels, and so on. Perhaps the biggest investment needed of them all is in the training of more skilled people.
The imperative to do it all quickly makes for a huge challenge. The dire news on global warming gets bleaker with every climate change report. Adding to the pressure to move fast is the rising clamour from the nuclear industry that it, too, has a major role to play in reducing carbon emissions. The wind industry has the next three or four years left to decisively prove in practice what has already been demonstrated in theory -- that it can do everything nuclear can do, but without risk to public health and for less money, even when back-up generation is taken into account. Resurrection of nuclear technology, in other words, is an expensive risk that does not have to be taken.
The wind industry is facing its own risk. Without the luxury of time on its side to grow at a measured pace, the danger of stumbling into a crashing fall is real. If that sounds far fetched, a close read of this issue of Windpower Monthly suggests otherwise. In a time of unparalleled investor confidence in the sector, it is chilling to read accounts of serious technology problems without a solution in sight, of turbines standing idle for lack of spare parts, of frequent component retrofits on new turbines, of "spotty service" from maintenance contracts, of serious skills shortages, of manufacturer warranties costing more and offering less, of at least one major turbine supplier no longer guaranteeing its product, just the components. The list goes on, as our reports this month on operations and maintenance issues reveal (pages 57-62). "Development has gone faster than the industry could keep up with," says one technician with 20 years in the field.
Throw into this scenario the news that an inexperienced wind project developer in America is importing an untried utility scale wind turbine from China (page 27) and the combined risk of it all starts to feel real. The last thing the global industry needs is a repeat of the mass technology failures of the 1980s. The advent of new turbine manufacturers to alleviate supply shortages is unquestionably good news. It takes a brave person, however, to sign up to a 900 MW supply deal and import the first turbines to America when the prototype rolled off the production line as recently as August and has only been in operation since October on a far flung Chinese coast. But as actor Harrison Ford recently reminded us, while doling out film industry awards to stunt men, history admires the wise and elevates the brave.
The established wind industry is not short of wisdom or courage. It fully recognises its deficiencies and is working at full stretch on training technicians and gaining a better understanding of technology fundamentals, such as loads on gearboxes. Governments could help, however, by speeding things up with wind power training programs at levels of higher education and more investment in fundamental research. At the very least that would allow them to demonstrate that the shocking disconnect shown by governments at the recent UN climate change conference in Bali between recognition of the climate change problem and identification of the solutions was just a passing hiccup.
Wind power might stumble once or twice, but it must not fall. If investors lose confidence and turn to nuclear power instead, bang goes the money needed for wind's growth, particularly offshore. The danger is that if the nuclear train is set in motion, the sheer weight of investment in it is likely to push wind off the rails. A massive build-out of nuclear rules out an equally massive build-out of wind: if a power system had large volumes of both it would mean paying one or the other not to generate electricity outside periods of peak demand, an economically untenable model. If nuclear is set rolling before wind is properly established, wind will get shunted down a branch line. Given the industry's good financial health, however, that nightmare scenario ought never come to pass. But good health requires putting effort into keeping fit.