Dynamic and focused in Dublin

Politics and market issues dominated the 1997 European Wind Energy Conference which had all the atmosphere of an industry gearing itself up for a new era of market growth, technology advances and price reductions.

As the premier wind energy event of the year drew to a close in Dublin last month a clear majority emerged for the final verdict: it was a good conference. Participants at the 1997 European Wind Energy Conference & Exhibition, EWEC '97, left Ireland's capital city after an almost euphoric week of political, economic and technical discussions where market issues became the dominant theme. The conference was focused on the job ahead, with announcements of not only new goals for installed wind capacity in Europe, but also of a new strategy for achieving them.

For a broad European wind gathering, such a relatively clear sense of direction was new and contributed to the underlying current of tension and excitement, palpable throughout the four days of formal and informal meetings in the halls and corridors of Dublin castle. Presentations on political strategy and global warming were unusually well attended -- and well applauded -- for an EWEC event. "My feeling is that there is a much more real active business involvement in this conference and as a result of that the political side of the conference is attracting more attention," commented the president of the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA), Ian Mays.

In the past, European wind conferences have been known more as magnets for technical boffins than for market gurus. This year the balance was reversed, with two days devoted to financial and business issues, including overviews on operation, performance and siting permits, and just one day of technical sessions. As one observer commented: "There were still plenty of research papers, but this time there was a commercial application in sight for most of them." The tough limit on the number of technical presentations -- where the more esoteric subjects were given space at a well attended poster session instead of on the platform -- allowed the mood of suppressed ebullience over the buoyant European market to be felt by even the most hardened cynic.

There was much to celebrate at EWEC '97. Mays talked of the "huge challenge and huge opportunity ahead," represented by climate change, increasing demand for electricity and the increasing price competitiveness of wind, all of which were driving growth. The cost of wind power has dropped by 30% in the past five years, the conference was told by Peter Hjuler of Denmark's Risø National Laboratory.

Installed wind capacity in Europe has topped 4000 MW and is clearly on target for over 4500 MW by the end of the year, an annual increase of over 1000 MW for the second year running. Significantly, most of this will be in the already established markets -- Germany, the Netherlands, Britain, Denmark and now Spain. The potential of the new European markets is still building: Ireland, Italy, Sweden and possibly France are all expected to enter the fray in a serious way by next year, adding glitter to a future already bright with promise.

New goals and strategy

But while the future is bright, it is far from guaranteed. The conference's optimistic buzz had a restrained quality about it -- and not only because the event was held in a north European climate. There was no ignoring the underlying tension of EWEC '97: participants were well aware that just one political lurch in the wrong direction from a country hosting a major wind market and the optimism would swiftly dissipate to dismay.

For this reason, the officers of the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) have been working on the framework for a new political strategy aimed at guaranteeing a long term market. The strategy, aired for the first time to EWEA's membership in Dublin by Ian Mays, is expected to form part of the European Union's first White Paper (policy statement) on renewable energy, due for publication shortly.

EWEA has set a new target for wind energy in Europe: 40,000 MW by 2010, with an interim target of 8000 MW in 2000 (see table). Even if wind's annual rate of growth in Europe -- 36% over the past five years -- was halved, that is well within reach, Birger Madsen, an independent consultant from Denmark, told the conference. To stabilise the growth rate over the long term, beyond the three to five year lifetimes of current market programmes in Europe, Mays said EWEA is supporting a new policy instrument to provide renewables with "environmental credit." This recognises, in monetary terms, wind's benefits to the environment. The approach, said Mays, is an alternative to the failed efforts of politicians to introduce equality into the electricity market by internalising the external costs of generation.

Specifically, EWEA is calling for legislation from each EU member country to specify "percentage obligations" for the amount of renewable energy in the national electricity supply. These obligations would increase with time and be backed by a system of tradeable renewable energy credits. In practice, the scheme requires electricity suppliers to ensure that a given percentage of their electricity in a given period stems from renewable sources. To achieve this they would be obliged to invest in renewables by acquiring "renewable electricity credits." These would be available through trading mechanisms -- within EU member states, between them or through a "clearing house" or renewables pool, regulated by government. The price of the credits would be decided by market forces as suppliers compete to obtain the green credits they need to remain a "qualifying facility."

Mays referred to the White Paper's target for renewables to meet 12% of total energy demand in 2010. Today, renewable energy meets 5.3% of the total EU energy demand of 6000 TWh a year, said Mays. By 2010, annual demand would have risen to 6600 TWh, requiring renewables to generate 792 TWh a year to meet the 12% target. Renewables today generate 324 TWh, so new power plant needs to be installed for generation a further 468 TWh. If wind were to contribute 25% of the 792 TWh demanded by the 12% target, some 45,000 MW of generating capacity is needed in 2010 -- an amount not far from the 40,000 MW being targeted by EWEA for the end of the next decade.

Realistic and achievable

An analysis of EWEA's installation goals was provided by Birger Madsen, who has long charted the fortunes of the wind industry. He said they were realistic. Madsen pointed out that it was only five years since the association published a strategy with goals then regarded as overly ambitious. The 1991 strategy, "Time for Action: Wind Energy in Europe," set a goal for 4000 MW of wind power in Europe by 2000. This has already been reached -- and within five years, not eight. EWEA's original goal for 2010 was just 25,000 MW, now increased to 40,000 MW.

Madsen's analysis was backed by Risø's Hjuler. He pointed out that "Time for Action" had targeted a 20-25% reduction in the cost of energy over ten years and the creation of 10,000 jobs; but a 30% reduction had already been achieved, along with 20,000 jobs, said Hjuler.

Similarly, the 8000 MW target of the Altener programme, the only EU programme dedicated to the promotion of renewable energy, is looking easily within reach by 2005, said Madsen. With the rate of wind development on its current course, the target will be achieved within three years. He adds, however: "I am not impressed by what the EU has done to support wind. If the outcome of Kyoto is for binding targets then I feel sure that many European politicians will have to strive for higher goals," he said. "If you have the right political framework then you will have 60,000 MW installed by 2010."

Alternative options

Several delegates expressed guarded concern that EWEA's strategy for "percentage obligations" backed with tradeable credits would put existing support mechanisms in danger. "I do not think it is worth going after something new. We need to hold onto what we have got," said Paul Dowling of the Irish Wind Energy Association. He advocated continuing with Ireland's existing Alternative Energy Requirement structure, but backing it with further measures such as supportive fiscal and tax policies, planning permit guidance, green electricity trading, local development and improved public relations. The aim was to see 1000 MW of wind power installed in Ireland by 2010, double the government's existing target. "The only way forward is a co-operative approach between local initiatives and independent government agencies," he said.

From Germany, Andreas Wagner of the German wind energy association, Bundesverband WindEnergie, also argued for a strategy different from that of EWEA. To level the playing field he advocated setting a fixed price for wind energy, instead of requiring that a fixed percentage of demand be met by renewables. The policy could be introduced across Europe as a European Union Directive for a Renewable Energy Feed in Tariff (REFIT) in each country. REFITs, he argued, could be made to work in liberalised markets even though the price of renewables was protected from market forces.

Other supporting legislation would be required, including non discriminatory rules for access to the grid, the establishment of standard contracts, and simplification of permitting procedures. He argued against any form of renewable quotas in electricity supply systems, saying these would in effective become upper limits and thus curtail the market.

Getting cheaper É

Wind's growing price competitiveness was stressed by Mays. At its cheapest wind is still more expensive than gas, but considerably cheaper than the cheapest coal and notably cheaper than cheapest nuclear, he said. Evidence in support of this claim came from independent UK consultant David Milborrow in a comparison of generating costs from wind and combined cycle gas turbines. In some cases, wind power is now the cheapest option, he concluded. But it was necessary to compare like with like: wind costs should be compared not with those of large fossil fuel power stations but with small plant. These are needed on a network to ensure high reliability at locations remote from large power stations, he said. Milborrow cited examples of small diesel and gas turbines, of less than 10 MW capacity, installed for this purpose in rural Britain. "It is becoming recognised that there is potential for the installation of small plant at selected locations in distributed networks," he said.

Even ignoring wind's value as such "embedded" generation, it is still price competitive, stressed Milborrow. With reference to recent contracts in Scotland, he commented: "Wind prices are now very similar to those of large combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) plant, without making any adjustment for the possible higher value of small generating plant." Gas currently costs ECU 500-600 per kilowatt of capacity, compared with around ECU 800/kW for wind turbines of about 500 kW rated capacity. The price of electricity from a small CCGT plant, however is around ECU 0.055/kWh for a 10 MW unit. "This is well above the minimum price for wind energy," bid into the British Non Fossil Fuel Obligation, said Milborrow.

Also on the subject of economics, Risø's Hjuler pointed out that ex-factory costs of wind turbines are down by 20% in five years and other costs are down by 50%, resulting in a 30% drop in the cost of wind power. In fact, each time the accumulated volume of wind capacity has doubled in Denmark, the costs have fallen by 20%. Not only is this owing to reductions of 10-15% in the cost of equipment, but better siting has also helped costs fall by 5-10%, said Hjuler.

And better É

Presenting an overview of wind energy technology development, Gys van Kuik from Stork Product Engineering said it has come a long way in 25 years. No longer is the technology "borrowed" from other disciplines. Today it is a branch of engineering in its own right: know-how is specific to wind turbines and to their requirements for highly specialised components. Van Kuik drew attention to the aesthetic development of wind turbines, which have progressed from the robust "strong looking" pieces of machinery of yesteryear to the "modern lightweight beauties" of today. Noise has been reduced, too, by as much as ten decibels, he said. The result of two decades of technology development is larger wind turbines, cheaper wind power, and new applications in low wind speed regions, on weak grids and offshore.

The cost of wind will probably continue to fall with further improvements in the basic concept and through engineering improvements. The main technology challenges ahead are threefold, said Van Kuik. Improvements must be made in the reliability of the design process, particularly with regard to blade aerodynamics and blade dynamics. Too much can still go too wrong, he says. Second, the size of wind turbines is a problem when it comes to transport and installation. "Wind turbines are the largest rotating machines," he said. Third, operational reliability has to be improved. Some 50% of operating problems occur with components not under load: the electric control unit, sensors and electrics.

Looking into the future, Van Kuik believes variable speed turbines, with modern control techniques, will come to the fore. But designers will first have to achieve load reduction in the drive train, remote control of power and power quality, superior grid connection and condition monitoring, he said. Next steps in technology will include the development of recyclable or reusable blades as well as smart blades of dedicated materials, with sensors, actuators and controlled flexibility. Maintenance requirements will also have to be reduced, particularly with offshore in mind.

The difference between "windmills" and "wind turbines" is the gap between the words "wind" and "turbine" , he joked. When wind turbines become as well established as windmills, they will be regarded as an entity and an object in daily life. According to the rules of English grammar, this will earn them a new status: as "windturbines" not wind turbines, he quipped.

Also looking at future technology, Hjuler said incremental change, including a greater variety of concepts, would be market driven over the next ten years. He foresees a more flexible approach to wind energy technology: greater structural flexibility of wind turbines, made possible by faster computers allowing development of improved and more reliable simulation codes; greater drive-train flexibility because of cheaper power electronics coming from variable speed, pitch control, and frequency converters; and greater flexibility in wind turbine control, with site specific design of control systems. The benefits will be cost reductions through lighter wind turbines and their greatly improved interaction with the electricity grid.

And bigger

The European Commission's determination to use available cash to support development of megawatt scale wind turbines, rather than turbines with more likelihood of early commercial application, has long been criticised by sections of the wind industry. The results of the Commission's WEGA I and WEGA II megawatt programmes are, however, significant, said Peggy Friis of Elsamprojekt, a division of the large Elsam utility in Denmark and long time participant in the Commission's megawatt programmes. A vast amount of data has been collected from the comprehensive measurement and reporting programmes, much of which has been used to calibrate dynamic design codes. "The result today is that wind turbine designers have access to validated design tools, a precondition for the increase in the number of wind turbine manufacturers seen in the last five years," said Friis.

"The most significant result and spin-off of the programme is the number of commercially available MW turbines on the market -- and the rapid increase in the number of MW turbines installed, which has so far exceeded expectations from when the project was launched," she added.

Fries was speaking at a final session on megawatt wind technology, scheduled at EWEC '97 at the request of the European Commission's Directorate General for energy, DG XII. "During the next eight months we will design the next scientific programme," explained DG XII's Komninos Diamantaras. He is anxious to receive industry input. "If they want to go bigger, we will be there to support them," he said. Of the ten machines being supported in the WEGA II programme, just three or four are expected to survive as commercial machines. Diamantaras says future calls for proposals for EU support are likely to be highly focused and "segmented" into specific areas of technology. "They will no longer be just open," he said.

If the industry is to meet the challenges thrown out at EWEC '97, there will be no shortage of research and development tasks. Winding up the conference, Hjuler presented an overview of wind energy in the 21st century and the challenges ahead. Politically, ambitious installation goals were needed, he said, and suggested that a long term target could be for wind to meet 25% of European electricity demand. Mays had earlier suggested the EU could play a major role in this respect, setting clear targets and a political and legislative framework for meeting them.

Technically, there was also great scope for improvement, said Hjuler. Work waiting to be done includes further reductions in noise from wind turbines, ways of reducing reflective glitter from turning rotors, and improved integration of wind turbines into the landscape, or "stealthing," said Hjuler. Customers will also demand life-cycle analyses of wind technology and recyclable components -- demands that would lead to environmental certification. At the same time, further international standardisation and certification of wind turbines is needed to facilitate international trade, he said.

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