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Partnership not aggression will win

Fuel cells are based on fossil fuel not renewable energy, but clever marketing tactics are persuading people they are a clean energy technology -- and thuis fierce competitors to wind power. Such is the danger for the industry, warns a German market analyst, that it must take action if it wishes to retain just some of the market for distributed power systems.

Clever marketing of fuel cell technology is already diverting the attention of governments away from their dependence on fossil fuel and thus making them fierce competitors to wind power. But if both sides agree to co-operate, both will win. In competition they may suffer

One of the biggest threats to wind energy over the next decade will come from small scale localised generating systems based on fossil fuels -- particularly fuel cells -- which will compete with wind for public and government support, warns German policy expert Thyge Weller from Fair Energy Consulting. Despite its success so far, he said, wind energy is not yet a safe bet. "It needs about ten more years of public support to become cost-competitive on the free market."

Today some 85% of all wind turbines are sold to regulated markets where wind is supported by subsidies, he says. But over the same time frame, "distributed systems" -- encompassing reciprocating engines, micro-turbines, Stirling engines and fuel cells which are either embedded in local distribution networks or which are local off-grid applications -- will be looking for the same support. "Wind energy and distributed systems will compete head-on over the next years for public attention and subsidies. Both technologies are successful right now, but both will need another ten years to become fully competitive."

Weller issued his wake-up call to the wind industry at the European Wind Energy Conference in Copenhagen in July. No other renewable energy technology poses such a threat to wind and no other conventional technology has such far reaching implications as distributed systems, he said. Today distributed systems enjoy a high degree of public attention -- even before they have proved their technical and social benefits. The first distributed systems will be available within the next two to three years, he said. These would target the "value market" for small scale generation, reducing this market's potential for wind.

Regulatory threat

But the bigger threat is in the regulated market, he warned. Fuel cells and Stirling engines could offer more economic results. "This will be interesting news for governments with their tight financial budgets and their aversion to subsidy. Especially if critical aspects of fuel cells -- like their dependency on fossil fuel -- are played down by clever marketing." Moreover, society could come to prefer these new distributed high-tech systems as candidates for eco-friendly investments, replacing wind and photovoltaics. "Less social awareness for wind energy makes it easier for politicians to withdraw their public support."

For its part, the wind community must tread a fine line between "being humble and being presumptuous," Weller said. It should neither retreat into a niche player position where it will be considered not worthy of support, nor should it overemphasise its bright future, otherwise the public will conclude it no longer needs support.

What is more, an aggressive approach against distributed systems, stressing wind's benefits and the deficits of distributed non-renewable technologies, would be self-defeating, he warned. This could merely lead to the fuel cells industry turning the tables and pinpointing the deficits of wind. "The result would be a no-win situation which takes up a lot of energy and money and could mean reduction of support for both sides."

Partnership approach

Weller called for a partnership between the wind community and the distributed systems world. "Combined, both sides will win; competing, both sides may suffer." Under a partnership, the two sides should work together for a common framework for distributed generation by whatever technology, and at the same time should aim for co-ordinated energy production through multiple complementary generating units. Large wind turbines are best suited to feed electricity into the grid, argued Weller, while fuel cells are most efficient when part of a combined heat and power (CHP) system, which could be in small home or office systems fuelled by gas, he said. "There is no more efficient way to burn gas. Our wind turbines, on the other hand, will be able to displace coal and gas fired central power stations which work at much lower efficiencies. In other words: a typical win-win situation."

The industry needs to build close working relationships with the distributed systems community, even though it is not yet used to building such market oriented networks, said Weller. "We have to take the initiative; we need them more than they need us." For this wind needs to find the right partners, even though tomorrow's winners may not be clearly visible today. The wind industry must find the players who shape the interfaces of a distributed world and make sure they build their control networks both for flexible energy demand and for intermittent generation, he said. And the wind industry has to create tangible products which can be marketed and sold and keep attention levels high for wind energy.

Looking further ahead, the wind community also has to think about its position in a future hydrogen economy, he urged. "We can anticipate the situation where wind power is cheap enough to convert it into hydrogen. If that happens wind energy is no longer just a source of electricity but becomes a player on the much larger overall energy market." But this is a long way off, Weller added. It would be a severe mistake for the wind industry to reach for this last step before it works out a relationship with the distributed systems industry. Meantime, it should also develop its view on producing hydrogen from nuclear. "Otherwise we may find ourselves seemingly working for wind-generated hydrogen, but preparing the re-entry of nuclear energy through the hydrogen back door."

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