Technology claims never realised -- ABB cancels Windformer

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The future of ABB's much-vaunted Windformer technology is in serious doubt after the sudden collapse of a project in Sweden intended to showcase the equipment. The Swiss-Swedish company says it is freezing all development of Windformer following cancellation of a 3 MW wind turbine that was to have been built this year at Näsudden on the Baltic island of Gotland. With this announcement ABB joins the ranks of mega power industry companies to have entered the wind market with much ado (Windpower Monthly, July 2000), only to later admit defeat.

ABB has marketed Windformer as offering big cost savings through increased power output and reduced system losses compared with traditional wind technology -- a claim met with considerably scepticism by the established wind industry (Windpower Monthly, April 2001). But ABB's Per Lennart Berg says the market is "not yet ready" for Windformer, which at 3 MW has proved to be more expensive than traditional technology.

He says Windformer would have been better suited to 5 MW installations and that ABB will not resume development of Windformer until such projects are being demanded by the market. Windformer was intended for use in offshore wind plant where large output volumes will be transmitted over long distances. It is unclear, however, whether ABB will either want or be able to revive the technology. All ABB staff involved in developing Windformer have either been moved to new tasks within ABB's other wind operations or have left the company.

Commenting on whether suspension of Windformer represents a scaling back of ABB's commitment to wind power, Berg says: "We think we have got so far with Windformer that we must wait for the market to develop and in that respect we are not as committed as we were [to wind power]." ABB will in future concentrate on producing wind generator and transmission systems, he adds. Whether this means the company will be pulling out of its involvement as a developer of wind projects on several key markets, such as Greece and Spain, is unknown.

Delayed and delayed

The key feature of the Näsudden III project was the use of a permanent magnet direct drive generator, which eliminates the need for a gear box and slip rings. The plant was to have been built on a site owned by Vattenfall, Sweden's state power utility, by a consortium of ABB and ScanWind, a Norwegian-Swedish wind farm developer. Originally scheduled for 2001, the EUR 9 million project had been hit by delays and was supposed to have been commissioned later this year.

Officially, Vattenfall, ABB and ScanWind state that Näsudden III will not proceed because "the technical development in the field of wind power has been so rapid that the size of the turbine blades required is not commercially available." Why the companies expected to buy blades off-the-shelf for a wind turbine as large as 5 MW is not made clear. Sources close to the project, however, indicate that the more pressing problem was Windformer's inability to deliver promised cost savings. Windformer enables high voltage power to be delivered directly to the grid, thereby obviating the need for an on-site transformer.

When it launched the technology in June 2000, ABB claimed Windformer would make wind farms competitive with conventional large power plants by "increasing power output by up to 20 percent and halving lifetime maintenance costs."

ScanWind, ABB's partner at Näsudden III, says a similar 3 MW direct drive wind turbine project at Hundhammerfjell in Norway using an electrical system provided by ABB's rival Siemens will go ahead as planned (Windpower Monthly, November 2001). Whether ScanWind will use Windformer technology in future is undecided. "The big issue for us now is to see whether ABB can deliver Windformer technology within the cost parameters that have been established," says the company's Torolf Pettersen.

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