Big business, big money

The year has been a momentous one for wind power. Across America, a series of huge wind farms are under construction. Europe got its renewable energy directive. The offshore wind business took off -- and at a fast and furious pace. The Kyoto protocol is close to final ratification. And global operating wind capacity shot past 20,000 MW, with the industry so busy it hardly had time to note the fact. Perhaps most important of all, however, is wind's new found status as an energy technology to be taken seriously. In 2001, it entered the ranks of big business -- and started to attract big money.

Huge power companies the world over, from Australia to Japan, from North America to Europe, are scrambling to get into wind plant development. Some of the most active are electric utilities in Spain and Italy, who are seeking out the potential for wind power in regions of the world as disparate as Latin America, China and Canada. News comes in this issue of Dutch power giant Nuon buying a wind development company in Spain (page 35). In Britain, no less than three big utilities have announced major investments in wind (page 14). In the United States, most big scale development has serious utility involvement, Texas being the prime example (pages 44-47), while offshore wind power (pages 25-30) is being lifted into being by a series of power industry heavyweights. Names like ABB, BP, Shell, and Siemens are becoming commonplace in the pages of Windpower Monthly. Even the nuclear industry is backing wind projects and turning up at wind events, mouthing the word "diversity" to explain its eagerness to ride two energy horses.

Talking of events, there has never been a year like 2001 for renewable energy conferences and seminars. Throughout 2001 they have attracted high level executives from major companies. When some of the world's top business leaders stand on podiums and speak with great authority on the key issues for wind power -- market structures, imbalance costs, integration and transmission requirements -- the industry has clearly become more than a blip on the edge of a radar screen.

It is all a far cry from the days not so long ago when wind power was a "promising but uncertain" technology in need of government support. Wind's new found maturity has much to do with its technical progress, which coupled with large production runs has brought the price down to within striking distance or less than its competitors. Just as important, however, is the macro shift in political thinking on energy and the environment -- and the new opportunities created by the liberalisation of electricity markets.

The importance of the Kyoto protocol, even in its weakened form, must not be underestimated. The Clean Development Mechanism opens up major opportunities for wind industry exports to the developing world. More immediately, what is pushing wind development now are market structures in which money can be earned -- and financial risk contained, whether it be the Netherlands' green power market, the British and Australian renewables obligations, the price subsidy in Spain, the tax credit price subsidy in the US, or Germany's fixed premium tariff. Investors are clearly most attracted by the markets driven by mechanisms they understand, like supply and demand. Or as Brian Count from Britain's Innogy expressed it last month: "If you are bucking the market you have a risk that the subsidy will be reduced."

With all these signs of being treated seriously, the wind industry could be forgiven for thinking its markets were safe. That battle, however, is far from won. Vested power sector interests are still ranged against fledgling upstarts like wind: nuclear is working at stealing wind's environmental market and the myth that wind generation needs dedicated back-up is alive and well. Meantime, rules for integrating wind into power systems are in their infancy -- with politicians still struggling with how to correct distorted markets.

No time for muddled messages

The wind lobby, in other words, needs to present a united front and send clear signals about what it needs from government. Muddled messages and a confused approach will lead to muddled rules and regulations, or no action at all. Government confusion or inaction will inject uncertainty back into the market along with increased risk, followed by the disappearance of big business and along with it the vital finance needed to lift big wind power stations off the drawing board.

It is tempting to believe that this might be the aim of a breakaway wind movement calling itself the World Wind Energy Association (page 14). But perish such uncharitable thoughts -- no organisation formed to support wind could surely want to slow its growth? Ironically, the association seems to have been formed to campaign for the use of taxpayers' money to stimulate wind turbine purchases, just as the sector has matured beyond that stage.

The aim of any wind policy must surely be to secure the most clean megawatts for the least amount of expenditure. Bickering in the ranks of the wind movement about how to go about achieving that aim is the last thing needed right now. There are far bigger issues at stake. For the so-called world association to organise a wind power event in Berlin in July to rival that already being held in Paris by the established European and American wind energy associations is unfortunate, to say the least. How much better it would be if all the renewables groups worked together to get the most out of the opportunities represented by Kyoto. This is not the time to shun big business, or big money.

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