Conference Report China: Battle for technology supremacy

One step into the exhibition hall at the China Wind Power 2009 exhibition in Beijing in October, was enough to see that some feisty rivalry was afoot.

Directly across from the main entrance, top Chinese wind turbine manufacturer Sinovel battled for superiority on the floor with foreign giants Vestas, Suzlon and Gamesa, from Denmark, India and Spain, respectively. Their prominent positions and impressive displays secured them a constant flow of potential customers. Further back, but with every bit as impressive a stand, was Sinovel's main domestic rival, Goldwind - the company that lost its first-place ranking in the Chinese market to Sinovel last year, but quietly fought back to regain the lead by the mid-half of this year. Goldwind installed 1.095 GW in the six months to end June, slightly exceeding Sinovel's 1.088 GW.

While both seem self-assured of their place in the market, Sinovel is a relative newcomer to the industry. It is determined to assert its worth as a leading player in both the Chinese and international industries, boldly pursuing a strategy to become one of the top three global turbine manufacturers within three years and number one within five years - a strategy it calls Three-Three-Five-One (see previous feature). "As we all know, quality is the top issue of the wind energy industry," said Chen Lixin, assistant general manager at industrial conglomerate DHI-DCW, Sinovel's parent company. DHI-DCW's ability to manufacture a range of turbine components, including gearboxes, hubs and control systems gives Sinovel a natural edge over the competition, according to Chen. "We have a strong supply chain supporting development," he said, adding that the group expects Sinovel to produce 3500 turbines next year. DHI-DCW's manufacturing strength also enables Sinovel to quickly respond to operators in need of service, Chen added.

Every gearbox DHI-DCW installs in a Sinovel unit is first subjected to stringent testing at its factory, which houses three test rigs. Sinovel conducts separate testing on the drive train at its own plant. To rise to the challenge of overseas competition, DHI-DCW has joined forces with UK-based engineering consultancy Romax, which designed the gearbox for Sinovel's 3 MW machines installed at the 102 MW Donghai Bridge offshore wind farm, near Shanghai. They are also collaborating on the gearbox design for a Sinovel 5 MW turbine still in development and are now considering working together in turbine condition monitoring and other technical spheres.

Another partner in Sinovel's turbine development is Massachusetts-based energy technology firm American Superconductor (AMSC), which in September signed a contract worth over $100 million to supply core electrical components for Sinovel's 3 MW wind turbines. That followed an earlier order for 3 MW turbine components in early 2008. "At the same time, we are well into the development of 5 MW wind turbines, which will be focused not just on offshore but also onshore," according to AMSC CEO Greg Yurek (Windpower Monthly, May 2009). AMSC supplies power converters that regulate voltage, monitor system performance and control the pitch of turbine blades to maximise efficiency.

Sinovel is placing its hopes for fulfilling its Three-Three-Five-One strategy on the 5 MW machines. It expects the design phase to be complete by the end of this year and hopes to have an offshore prototype completed by the end of 2010. The prototype will then be installed at the Donghai Bridge project in early 2011, as a prelude to marketing the turbine abroad. To that end, Sinovel is drafting a global sales strategy. It established a department last year to study foreign markets and draw up a timeline for exports of the turbine. The company plans to establish sales offices in the US and Europe next year.

The European office will most likely be in the UK - the company wants to use its experience from the Donghai Bridge project in the UK's huge anticipated offshore wind market, said Tong Tong, marketing vice-director for Sinovel. As part of its global strategy, Sinovel has built five onshore and offshore pilot wind farms in China, including Donghai Bridge, designed specifically to subject its turbines to meteorological conditions mirroring those in overseas markets, said Tong.

Direct-drive turbines

Meantime, as a long-standing player in the Chinese market, Goldwind is quietly and confidently going about its business, wagering that its direct-drive turbines will be market winners. In a direct-drive wind turbine, the rotor is connected directly to a slow-speed generator, while in a conventional wind turbine a gearbox is employed to step up the speed of the rotor to that of a high-speed generator's input shaft. Goldwind designed a 1.5 MW direct-drive machine with German turbine-design company Vensys, which it acquired last year, and completed a 2.5 MW prototype direct-drive unit in September. It is now designing a 3 MW model with two gear stages as well as a 5 MW model; no decision has yet been made on how many gear stages, if any, that machine will have.

Kerry Zhou, Goldwind's director of strategy and global development, said the maximum time that Goldwind's turbines are available to operate is higher than that of turbines from its competitors. Customers are turning to its technology, she said, adding: "A competitor won a (certain) bid, but then the customer changed its mind and approached us and asked whether they could switch to our turbine."

Goldwind was set to decide on the location for a US office by this month. The office will explore sales channels in North America, research US regulations, arrange financing and possibly invest in projects. The company has no US sales forecast yet, said Zhou. "To avoid risk factors we need to do thorough analysis and recruit local professionals," she said. "We are still in the planting-seeds stage, but we hope that by the end of next year we can see a very good pipeline and generate orders. We expect the harvest time will be in 2011, conservatively. It might go faster." That ambition applies largely to the US, but also to other overseas markets including Australia.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles
and free email bulletins.

Sign up now
Already registered?
Sign in