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Innovation Key to Maintaining UK Distributed Wind Success

Before we begin to address the challenges inherent in the British medium-scale wind industry, it will make sense to develop a wider picture of the sector as things stand.

Make no mistake; the UK’s small to medium wind market sector is in good health. Combine solid wind resources with a positive FiT-supported regulatory framework and you have an appealing recipe for attracting manufacturers from overseas. Proven growth and an already developed supply chain of distributors, planners, developers and operations and maintenance (O&M) providers can only sweeten the deal.

The strength of the UK distributor market, in particular, is an important asset to medium-sized manufacturers seeking to expand and capitalise on favourable conditions in the sector. Thanks to a strong distribution network, the whole of the UK can be provided with a personal – and localised - service.

These are significant benefits and a major draw for a manufacturer of medium-sized turbines. Small and medium-scale distributed wind markets elsewhere in Europe, with the exception of Italy, have not received the necessary financial support to reach this level of development. In Spain, recent policies have all but killed the industry for the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately, some of this political and regulatory uncertainty remains in the UK, and, despite the positive growth of the distributed wind sector, there are still a number of obstacles, financial and political, that must be overcome before the market can really achieve its potential.

The sector has historically seen a lack of the right kind of investment. Returns on wind energy technology are not typically fast and a long-term view is required. Regrettably, the majority of early stage investors, such as venture capitalists and growth equity firms — the kind of backers that these projects need to get up and running — do not share this perspective.

A short-term investor focus, fuelled partially by the recession, has ultimately led to greater urgency on behalf of the manufacturer to return a profit or even become cash flow positive.

When the long and demanding certification process — no bad thing, I might add — is brought into the equation, the result is a scenario where companies have had to rush to market with more traditional but proven technology. In doing so, they have reduced design and testing phases to a bare minimum to ensure that products are delivered on schedule.

The overall picture is that technological innovation is not being promoted in the current environment — instead stakeholders are focusing on shorter-term gains. The UK government needs to pay more attention to negative trends such as this. The way in which it is dealing with the commercial practice of turbine de-rating, for example, is not really helping the manufacturers of smaller, technologically advanced turbines.

It is common knowledge that certain manufacturers and developers have been limiting their older, larger machines in order to take advantage of more profitable FiT brackets. Regulators have, however, failed to react. The 1.5-100-kW segment is being awarded only slightly better tariffs but has a substantially more onerous degression system than the 100-500-kW bracket above it.

So what can a turbine manufacturer do when faced with these key market inefficiencies? 

The answer, as simplistic as it may sound, is to approach them head-on. It does not take long to identify the missing ingredient.

Put simply, innovation is key. If the success of UK small and medium wind is to continue, manufacturers will have to buck the trend, take a risk and start to deliver products that bring more to the customer. We need to focus, for instance, on the development of products that can be incorporated into hybrid solutions with other technologies, products that can be installed off-grid, or that can handle the increasing requirements of local grid infrastructure.

Of course, as we’ve seen, attracting the investment required to do so will be a challenge. However generating investor confidence will only become easier as innovation starts to become the norm. 

If manufacturers can start to bring some of the efficiency and security of the large-scale wind market to the small and medium sector, we should encourage investors to adopt a longer-term perspective that will help to promote further crucial innovation in future.

In technological terms, this means devoting as long as possible to the research and development phases, incorporating some of the proven advancements of larger turbines and providing operations and maintenance services to rival those of the bigger manufacturers. 

For the first of these, manufacturers must create a stable environment for the development of their turbin, and take a necessary risk and resist the pressure to rush their products into the market. In doing so, manufacturers will have time to produce more efficient machines and pick and choose from some of the technological advancements that have been most successful in today’s large-scale turbines. Engineers on our nED100 project, for example, saw the benefit of eliminating hydraulics and thus avoiding costly gearbox failures and oil leakages.

And it is not just by borrowing proven technology from bigger turbines that manufacturers can enhance efficiency; we can also learn a thing or two about O&M from the large end of the sector. The ability to perform a detailed remote diagnosis is vital when ensuring smooth O&M practice and avoiding those endless phone calls with the customer trying to figure out what the problem is. 

Current leading small and medium technologies fall short on the remote diagnosis of faults because of the lack of electronic components in their design. Newer technologies, where most if not all of the components are electric, permit thorough monitoring and control and significantly enhance a manufacturer’s O&M offering.

These are the kinds of changes that are required to bring a breath of fresh air to the FiT-supported distributed wind sector. By introducing innovation and a long-term perspective to a market traditionally reliant on old technology — typically held back by a focus on short-term gains — small and medium manufacturers can consolidate and maintain the growth that the sector has seen in recent years.

Lead image: Lightbulb via Shutterstock

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