Clear signal of long-term political commitment into decarbonising our energy system is needed

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Alternative Energy

Alternative Energy’s first issue features interview with Steve Sawyer

Alternative Energy (AE): Could you, please, tell about the objectives of the Global Wind Energy Council? Which goals have been successfully achieved? 

Steve Sawyer, Secretary General, Global Wind Energy Council: GWEC is the global wind industry trade association, providing representation for the entire wind energy sector at the international level. Our mission is to ensure that wind power establishes itself as one of the world’s leading energy sources, providing substantial environmental and economic benefits.

We work on four main areas: a) Policy development: To participate in policy and regulatory forums that work to create frameworks for wind power development, with a focus on areas beyond the established markets in Europe and North America; b) Business leadership: To provide the strategic and business leadership needed to engage external stakeholders; c) Global outreach: To work with emerging markets to transfer know-how and strengthen the development of wind energy world-wide; d) Information and education: To provide quality information, expertise, analysis and data about wind energy.

 AE: Which countries can be said to be true leaders of the wind energy industry? 

Steve Sawyer: The USA, Germany, Spain, China and India have always been leading the world in terms of installed wind power capacity. This picture remained the same, except that China has overtaken Spain. GWEC’s regional focus is on Asia (mainly China and India) as well as on Latin America (Brazil, Mexico), where there is tremendous untapped potential for wind energy development. In particular, we have recently strengthened our cooperation with trade associations in Latin America.

AE: Do you have plans to involve the Caspian states in the Wind Energy Council? 

Steve Sawyer: We already have ongoing cooperations with a number of organisations in the Caspian Sea area. Our members include the Renewable Energy Organisation of Iran (SUNA), the University of Tehran and the Russian Association of Wind Energy (RAWI). We would be delighted to extend this cooperation to other Caspian states.

AE: How efficiently is wind power used worldwide? Are there any technologies to make the production of this kind of alternative energy cheaper? Could you, please, provide details on the progress of this direction? 

Steve Sawyer: The first commercial wind turbines were installed in the 1980s, but since then, their size, design and efficiency have improved enormously. For one, they have grown larger and taller, from around 25kW in the 1980 to commercial turbines as big as 5 or 6 MW. The generators in the largest modern turbines are 200 times the size of those in 1980, and over the same period, their rotor diameters have increased eight-fold. 

Modern commercial turbines operate on a horizontal axis with three blades in an ‘upwind’ configuration, with the rotor hub pointing into the wind, and they make best use of the constant variations in the wind by changing the angle of the blades through ‘pitch control’, by turning the entire rotor as the wind direction shifts, and by operating at variable speed.
As a result of these improvements (which are still ongoing), modern wind turbines now produce much higher quantities of electricity at a lower cost than their ancestors.

AE: What do you think of the decisions approved at the Copenhagen Conference? Which effects will summit’s outcomes have on the wind power industry?

Steve Sawyer: The climate summit in Copenhagen fell short of delivering the promise that global leaders made to each other in Bali in December 2007 to reach a legally binding agreement to curb global greenhouse gas emissions for the period after the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment ends at the end of 2012. The Copenhagen Accord, however, constitutes a letter of intent rather than an international treaty, and all reference to a ‘legally binding’ nature (now or in the near future) has disappeared from the final text. What we ended up with are voluntary actions by countries, with no legally binding commitments and no international architecture. This is a weak agreement, which missed a unique opportunity to make genuine progress towards saving the climate and spurring investment in renewable energy technologies. GWEC had been calling for stringent legally binding emissions targets to mobilise continued investment in renewable energy and to establish a solid basis for carbon markets.

The voluntary approach taken in this declaration fails to send clear confidence building signals to the market and to investors in clean energy technologies. The wind energy industry stands ready to deliver on its promise to save 10 bn tons of CO2 by 2020. The boom of wind energy and other renewable energy technologies will continue, driven by national concerns over climate change, and economic and security considerations. However, a clear signal of long-term political commitment into decarbonising our energy system was needed to drive even more private investment to clean technologies.

AE: How successful are you in drawing investments to wind energy industry? 

Steve Sawyer: With wind becoming increasingly attractive economically, major traditional energy companies have started to invest heavily in this market. These include General Electric, which bought the turbine manufacturer Enron Wind in 2002, as well as Siemens, which took over the Danish manufacturer Bonus Energy in 2004. In addition, major wind turbine manufacturers have been expanding their manufacturing facilities around the world to meet growing demand.

More recently, large utility companies including Iberdrola, Florida Power and Light (FPL) Energy, Electricite De France (EDF), Energias De Portugal (EDP), EOn, RWE and many others have also invested project development and operation of wind farms. The annual global market is projected to grow from 27 GW to over 140 GW by 2020, which would translate into an annual investment of almost 150 bn EUR [210 bn USD].

AE: Which large-scale wind energy projects are now underway? Which projects are subjected to implementation in the short run? 

Steve Sawyer: There are many large-scale projects in the pipeline now, too many to list them here. One of the largest that are in advanced stages of planning is probably the London Array project, a 1,000 MW offshore wind farm that will be jointly built by Masdar, E.On and DONG Energy. In the US, the largest planned wind farm is a 845 MW project in Oregon (‘Shepherds Flats’). China is also planning some very large-scale projects in the framework of its ‘Wind Base’ programme, some of which will add up to 10 GW or more. The largest wind farm currently operating is the Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center in Texas, USA (736 MW).

AE: How successfully are wind energy projects progressing in the USA and China, the countries with the largest CO2 emissions? 

Steve Sawyer: China and the US are now the largest and fastest growing wind energy markets in the world. China has been doubling its installed wind energy capacity from year to year. An unofficial target for the Chinese government is to reach a total installed capacity of 150 GW by 2020, and the country is well on track to meeting this.
In the US, wind energy represented the largest share of new generation capacity added to the power portfolio, as was the case in Europe. Other large or fast growing emitters such as India have also put a strong emphasis on developing wind energy to cut CO2 emissions.

AE: Which state-of-the-art innovation technologies are now used in the wind power industry?

Steve Sawyer: Modern wind turbines, which now reach sizes of 5, 6 or even 7 MW, are very high tech and they operate like conventional power plants (delivering both energy and grid support services). What’s more, they are capable of operating for twenty years and more in the harshest conditions both onshore and offshore. 

These turbines are the largest rotating structures on earth, and the blades are the largest single piece components ever made! AND they are now manufactured in series, which is very impressive indeed… In terms of new designs, Siemens’ floating Hywind turbine for offshore use is very promising and is currently being tested. This turbine can be put in water depths up to 700 meters, while avoiding the need for complicated and costly foundations, thereby considerably extending the scope for offshore wind energy deployment. 

Other innovations include gearless machines, new power train configurations, as well as monitoring and control systems with the objectives of increasing efficiency (extracting the most electricity from the wind as possible) and reliability (i.e. being ‘available’ as close to 100% of the time as possible).

AE: What is the ratio between wind turbines on land and sea? 

Steve Sawyer: The global wind generation capacity now stands at around 150 GW. Out of this, only 2 GW are offshore. The offshore wind market is currently mainly (all but 30 MW) concentrated in Europe.

AE: What solutions to tackling wind energy utilization’s negative affects such as noise, turbines appearance, etc. would you suggest? 

Steve Sawyer: The visual impact of turbines is largely a matter of personal taste, and it is striking to see that in areas with many wind farms (such as Denmark), public acceptance levels are highest. Often, it is more the idea of a wind farm that people object to, and opposition drops as soon as the wind farm starts operating. 

It is true that depending on the situation of a wind farm and nearby houses, wind turbines can make some noise. This is usually no more than 35-45 decibels at a distance of 350 meters, similar to the background noise found in a typical home. However, this can be disturbing to some people, and the industry is therefore careful to abide with regulations and best practice when it comes to the siting of wind farms, to make sure that they are not built too close to human dwellings.

AE: How economically feasible is wind power utilization?

Steve Sawyer: The costs per kWh of wind-generated power, calculated as a function of the wind regime at the chosen sites, range from approximately 7-10 c€/kWh at sites with low average wind speeds, to approximately 5-6.5 c€/kWh at windy coastal sites, with an average of approximately 7c€/kWh at a wind site with average wind speeds. This means that at sites with good wind speeds, wind power is already competitive with new built conventional power stations.

These calculations do not take into account the price for carbon emissions, air pollution, environmental effects of mining and oil exploration, water usage and other ‘externalities’ associated with conventional energy generation, which costs are borne by society as a whole and not included in the price of conventional electricity. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), a carbon price of €10 adds 1c€/kWh to the generating cost of coal and 0.5c€/kWh to the cost of gas generated electricity.

In addition, a significant advantage of wind power is that the fuel (i.e. the wind) is free, and that the cost of producing power over the 20 year lifespan of a turbine can be predicted with a great level of certainty – in contrast with the highly fluctuating fuel prices of coal, oil or gas. This uncertainty and added risk linked to conventional fuels must be taken into account when determining the economic viability of wind power. 

Source: Alternative Energy, 27 August 2013