Like any family gathering, feelings of shared interests were mixed, with elements of sibling rivalry, particularly between the wind and solar sectors. A quick glance at the floor of the fair was enough to show who was the older brother and who the younger. The giant wind turbines exhibited by Nordtank, Nordex, Micon and Enercon dominated the exhibition hall pushing the solar pavilion and displays of photovoltaic installations into the background.
As congress chairman Professor José Goldemberg, a former energy minister of Brazil, observed, while solar power is still a baby in need of government aid, "the wind industry has come of age" and -- with technology that "looks like it was built by Boeing" -- is ready to "move out of its niche market and into the mainstream."
But the sheer power of the assembled wind technology and the steady hum of business-as-usual around the turbine manufacturers' well appointed stands could not disguise the fact that for many of the fair's visitors the Solar Pavilion was the place to be. Its daily programme of lectures, films and presentations was a lesson in slick marketing and product presentation that left the wind business far behind.
The impression that wind, like former British premier John Major, somehow lacks visionary appeal -- or simply the ability to get people excited -- was reinforced by presentations in the congress hall. With plenary sessions divided between representatives of the various sectors, the differences of approach employed by wind and solar energy advocates were notable. Where most wind advocates described the technical problems and technological successes of the industry in a language accessible only to insiders, speaker after speaker from the solar sector got up to sell the sun directly to the consumer.
The difference of approach was most marked in the final day's session on marketing techniques. Aloys Wobben, managing director of Enercon, charted his company's rise to dominance in what session chairman Christophe Bourillon dubbed a "macho industry" through a survey of the technological developments of Enercon's wind turbines. He was immediately followed by Michael Pitcher of BP Solar who told delegates the solar industry had to drop the language of the engineer and start addressing its consumers directly. Today's energy customer, he said, wants more consumer choice and can be best reached through "brand-led communication" offering "value added pride."
The pattern of "wind-0, solar-2" was repeated when Manfred Wohlers of German utility EWE spoke at length on intricate supply network problems and their solution following the rapid development of wind energy in northern Germany. He, too, was followed onto the platform by an eloquent solar salesman, Andrew Vesey of Entergy Services Inc. Vesey talked of the need to "rethink the [solar] product" and described US utilities' interest in the "new architecture" of solar energy, where houses became "energy spaces," purchased through "energy mortgages." It was painfully clear which approach had the greater impact on the non-specialist members of the audience.
Not that the auditorium ever rang with deafening applause. The conference was "a bit of a catastrophe" admitted a disappointed Paul Diamond from European Media Marketing, the joint organiser of the fair. Even at the opening session there were just 120 people, leaving row upon row of chairs unoccupied. And even this level of attendance was not matched again. When it was the turn of key note speakers such as television environmentalist David Bellamy and former Dutch prime minister Ruud Lubbers, visionary and inspiring words fell flat in what, by late afternoon on the first day, was a near empty auditorium with only about 60 people present.
Diamond says that thought will be given to considering another format for the conference when the trade fair is staged again in Amsterdam in 1999. Laudably, the aim had been to concentrate on important overview issues, such as politics, financing and marketing -- areas which are common ground for all the renewables. But with most speakers lacking punch and few people listening to them, the congress fell well short of being an arena for serious debate and decision making. Diamond was particularly disappointed by the wind industry's poor involvement in the congress, both on and off the platform. "I'd like to extend an invitation to the wind industry to play a more important intellectual part," he said, regretting that the European Wind Energy Association had declined to take part.
In contrast, strong backing came from a more surprising quarter. India fielded no less than three high ranking government officials who all gave promising, yet different, views of the Indian market. Their prominent presence on the conference platform at various intervals, however, served to illustrate the near total lack of representatives from other regions of the developing world -- ironically the very regions which, in the long term, stand to gain most from renewable energy.
For wind energy, one of the bright moments of an often slow moving congress was an opening speech by Gerrit Jan Zijlstra of Netherlands utility Energie Noord West. In an encouragingly positive presentation from a utility, he presented Energie Noord West's concrete plans for wind. These included installation of 130 MW by 2000 and 500 MW by 2010, 300 MW of which would be offshore. To create a market, he said, a three pronged strategy was required: tax instruments to improve economic viability; trade in renewables to create a market; and targets and financial schemes "where the market needs a push."
The aim was for wind to contribute 3% to Energie Noord West's energy supplies in 2000 and 17% in 2020. Zijlstra pointed out, though, that while the wind power price curve was coming down, the cost curve was rising at the same tempo as sites run scarce in the crowded Netherlands. He envisaged cross-border trade in renewables becoming the norm. Likening the "infrastructure revolution" in the electricity business to that already experienced in the information industry -- where main frame computers spawned a vast network of interconnected local computers in a massive move towards decentralisation -- he said renewables were "at the frontiers of system change." But to realise their potential, co-operation between governments, utilities and customers was vital. "The market needs stable, wise, government support," he said. "Renewables are a pioneer in liberalisation, "a crowbar in the change of the market's infrastructure."
Coming from a utility, such words of fire are a significant pointer to how attitudes are changing in at least some corners of the electricity establishment. Zijlstra predicted that wind and the other renewables were about to "change the electricity supply infrastructure in a revolutionary way." Looking forward to a future where utilities would be producers, market creators and network facilitators of renewable energy, he saw wind as playing an increasingly important role in a liberalised and decentralised energy market concerned with the local optimisation of power.
Zijlstra's remarks were echoed during the final day's session by Annemarie Goedemakers of Dutch utility NUON. Explaining why her company had elected to follow the renewables route despite its apparent cost she gave five reasons. Environmental responsibility; brand leadership -- NUON was a small company in European terms and needed a strong positive identity to secure its place on the liberalised energy market; security of long term supply; and customer satisfaction. "Our customers like us to do this" she said. Clearly the progressive utilities and the solar industry are singing from the same "value added" hymn-sheet.
Indeed, Professor Goldemberg wrapped up the conference with a challenge to the wind industry. Was it not time for wind to go and play with the big boys at the electricity industry's major exhibitions? On the evidence of the World Sustainable Energy Trade Fair it would seem that, in addition to its turbines, the wind sector would do well to consider taking along some of the presentation techniques employed so successfully by its younger brother, solar power. A little vision might go a long way to dissipate public resistance in Northern Europe to the technology's visual impact on the landscape.
And more vision
Inspirational nuggets for building vision were not in short supply. Several speakers took a broader view of the potential of renewables. The fact that two billion people in the world are without electricity was mentioned more than once. So too was the enormous role that renewables could play in stabilising greenhouse gas emissions. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), if no action is taken, developing countries will be contributing three times the amount of emissions than the developed world by 2010, with China responsible for more than 35% of the increase. In the same year, the US would be responsible for as much as 58.9% of greenhouse gas emissions in the developed world, with Europe and the Pacific region both responsible for around 20%.
Thomas Johannson of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) pointed out that governments continue to devote less than 10% of their energy spending to renewables. The rest goes to fossil fuel and nuclear. "There is great scope for change," he said. "There is lots of talking but more open discussion is needed about how to implement change."
The presence of an oil company representative on the podium caused a deal of wry eyebrow raising among veterans of renewable energy campaigning. George Dupont Roc, head of renewable energy at Shell, gave an account of the off-grid rural market for solar energy in the developing world, describing Shell's work to develop suitable technology to meet its needs. But Shell's model "sun station," in which renewable sources of energy provide all the power needs of a village, failed to impress. The fact that wind was not included suggested that Shell is wary of even mentioning a technology now competitive with oil fired plant. Asked if Shell's claimed interest in renewables would encourage it to campaign politically for their greater use, Dupont Roc sidestepped the question: "First we have to pay the rent," he said. In a more candid afterthought, he added: "We do not see it as our role to influence government one way or the other." The remark was met by a deal of hollow laughter from delegates well aware of the influence of well funded fossil fuel industry lobbying.
The feelings of the audience were put into a nutshell by Hermann Scheer of Eurosolar. "We are economic dwarfs up against a giant problem" he said, "heading for the marginalisation of mankind as a whole." He warned of the threat of global instability as the world starts running out of fossil fuels, pointing out that 50-80% of the entire African continent's exports were based on oil, while 20 years ago it was just 6-10%. "It will become the most important security question of the next century," he ominously concluded.
This theme was continued by Peter Meisen, founder of GENI, the Global Energy Network International based in California. Meisen contended that a top global priority is to develop an electricity grid linking all the world's remote renewable resources. Such spontaneous global co-operation would open new markets and create world trade, cut the use of fossil fuel and thus pollution, promote international co-operation and world peace and make electricity available to the two billion who today have no access to it. Yet, he pointed out, the penetration of renewables in world electricity supplies is relatively falling further behind as China races to build fossil fuel power stations.
Back on the exhibition floor, such dreams of future world peace and cleanliness faded in the bright glare of spotlights which incongruously fell not only on PV panels and wind turbine nacelles, but also on the chrome and deep pile carpeting making up the polished stands of companies which seemed oddly out of place at a renewable energy event. Names such as Audi, AG Autogas Systems, Shell LPG, Eurogas, Ultragas, and BP Gas were all tucked in behind the dominant wind exhibits.
According to European Media Marketing's Paul Diamond, such diversity was a deliberate policy of the organisers. The remit of an official from a utility or government department often included all renewable technologies, he argued. "A utility looking at biomass might well be interested in wind as well. The fair was a place where the business could be done all in one place," explained Diamond. "We were attempting to professionalise the appearance of the whole industry -- and I'm glad to say the exhibitors matched our effort," he said. "We are also trying to widen the scope of what is renewables. This is why we included waste-to-energy. We believe it will help boost the profile of the industry and thus pull in the utility heavyweights and local authorities."
Nonetheless, exhibitors from the wind industry were generally a "little disappointed," with the fair, though most admitted to being impressed by its the professional organisation and promotion. The consensus, however, was that at the next World Sustainable Energy Trade Fair, scheduled for the same venue in 1999, smaller, less costly stands would be erected.
"We had a large number of Dutch visitors and a reasonable number of international visitors. The quality was good, but we could have wished for more," said Luis Ebler of Danish Vestas, the world's largest manufacturer of wind turbines. Jens Pedersen of Nordex Balcke-Dürr agreed: "Our Dutch agent was very satisfied with the number of visitors from Holland, but we lacked customers from overseas," he said. A more disappointed Marcus Tacke from German Tacke Windtechnik felt the event did not justify his company's investment.
As a component supplier to the industry, LM Glasfiber was a little happier. The company's Troels Thomsen commented: "We had expectations that it would be more international. It was dominated by the Dutch." He said LM "was looking for something where all the people gather to look at what's on the market." While he felt this aim was not fulfilled, Thomsen was pleased the wind industry now had an alternative exhibition to the bi-annual renewable energy section of the huge Hannover industrial trade fair. Paul Diamond, however, claimed the Amsterdam event was a far superior "window for the wind industry" than Hannover because of its specific focus.