Is wind power an old dog fresh out of tricks?

Wind power is now quite a mature industry, but that doesn't mean there's no innovation left. Indeed, with some tweaks to the manufacturing process, there's plenty of room for improvement.

A recent announcement from GE that it is investigating how to lighten and reduce the cost of wind turbine blades through use of flexible fabrics similar to a yacht’s sail, serves as an illustration that there’s still room for improvement and alternative approaches in turbine technology. 

One thing I’ve commonly heard over the years is that wind power is at its limits; it’s done its dash, and there’s no more room for improvement. I’ve been hearing this since 2005. It is certainly true that wind power is no spring chicken, and improvement is more evolutionary rather than revolutionary. But I suspect there’s still space for surprising improvements.

Strangely enough during a visit to Australia’s largest solar power plant in Geraldton, I actually learnt a great deal about the wind turbine industry. Through a rare stroke of luck I ended up sharing a taxi (as well as a very long wait for it to arrive) with a former manager of a Vestas wind turbine factory, who now runs a global wind turbine maintenance business. 

Based on that discussion, on top of others I’ve had with wind industry executives over the years, a picture emerges of three alternative strategic paths wind turbine manufacture could take, of which only one has really been explored. Simplified, they are:

The Porsche – Focus on engineering excellence building the highest performance, highest durability turbine possible, regularly updating the design to incorporate the latest technology proven to work reliably. The product will carry a high price but delivers excellent quality and performance.

This is pretty much the strategy all the major international manufacturers such as Vestas, Siemens, Enercon, RE Power and GE already pursue.

The Volkswagen Beetle – Stick over a long time period to a single design that works well, resisting the temptation to update it with new technology. Instead focus relentlessly on squeezing out the cost of manufacturing through automation and economies of scale while maintaining consistent quality. 

At present wind turbine blade manufacture is a highly intricate process with minimal automation where skilled labour and a fine eye for detail is required.  By moving towards the Volkswagen Beetle strategy the aim is to convert manufacturing into something akin to mass-production of motor vehicles, where product is produced faster, at lower cost and with less skilled labour input. While buyers will get a turbine that won’t yield as much power from a given wind speed, it will be noticeably cheaper than the Porsche alternative and still be highly reliable and possibly more reliable.

The laptop computer – Turbine designs are updated very regularly to realise improvements in performance, but the product is not designed to last for very long. Instead parts are replaced after a few years with the new replacement parts incorporating performance improvements. 

From what I’m told this innovative idea came out of interaction with Chinese customers. The Chinese saw that blade technology was regularly improving and based on their experience with consumer electronics asked the question – why make these blades to last 20 years? Why not make them cheaper but less durable and after five years I’ll just replace them with a higher yielding blade just like what we do with electronic goods?

Implications

By comparison with a range of other industries that still continue to eke out significant improvements year after year, the wind turbine industry is relatively young. So far it has focussed on the Porsche strategy. This makes good sense when dealing with a novel technology in the utility industry where reliability is paramount, operating experience is lacking and technology is still moving relatively quickly. 

But as the industry develops more operational experience, and the technology becomes more commoditised, it seems likely that other approaches will be explored in an effort to gain a competitive edge. These will deliver further cost reductions per unit of energy delivered.

Rather than over-engineered parts that try to completely avoid failure at great cost, manufacturers are gaining an understanding of how to save costs through designing components that are designed to fail predictably. This provides buyers with the same level of reliability, but trades-off upfront cost and maintenance costs. 

In my discussion with Vestas’ global head of marketing, Morten Albaek, he explained this is something the company is very focussed on. He felt Vestas had a major advantage over competitors because it has more turbines in the field supplying data back to Vestas. This data helps them to learn how to design and manufacture turbines which better optimise a trade-off between yield, durability, manufacturing cost and maintenance costs with the aim of delivering lower overall cost of energy.

A range of supposedly old industries are constantly being reinvigorated by technological advances outside their immediate industry. The internet for example has revolutionalised an industry as old as newspapers and books. Materials science and nanotechnology could likewise provide breakthroughs for wind turbine blade design, where there is a battle between size, weight and strength.  

To borrow from Tony Abbott’s fondness for animal analogies – wind power is no spring chicken but it’s not yet an old dog unable to learn new tricks.

Related Articles