New Sector Entrants: In Defence of Renewables

As the renewable energy sector grows, it is inevitable that companies from outside the traditional core of the industry will begin to take seriously the opportunities it presents.

It’s often assumed that this attention will come from the wider energy sector as it sees what was once a niche element of its own ranks flourish and become a multi-billion dollar global industry in its own right.

The utilities and technology providers of the ‘mainstream’ power sector are certainly buying into renewables, in many cases literally. Interest in the UK’s recent offshore wind leasing round is proof enough of that. Major engineering groups such as the UK’s Rolls-Royce have also long been keen to be part of the clean energy revolution.

However, businesses beyond these ‘usual suspects’ are also well aware of the commercial potential of renewables, and are determined to demonstrate that they have an important role to play in the future development of a clean energy infrastructure.

Qinetiq, for example, the UK-based technology group, is at first sight an unusual addition to the renewables roll-call. If asked to sum up its business in a single word, many who know the company would reply without hesitation – ‘defence’.

The company has its roots in the UK’s defence infrastructure and was formed by part-privatisation of the national defence research organisation in the 1990s. Qinetiq was – and indeed to a considerable extent still is – about the type of technology that ends up in and around battlefields. The Talon robot, used in Iraq to carry out reconnaisance in areas too dangerous for military personnel, is a classic example of Qinetiq technology in action.

The company is, however, one of many businesses that have seen the opportunity to deploy in the renewables sector the expertise that has made it successful in its core markets. It now has a presence of one kind or other in wind, waste-to-energy, hybrid vehicles and solar.

And thanks to its background in naval structures, Qinetiq is playing a major role in the evolution of the UK’s emerging wave and tidal energy sector through test and development facilities such as Haslar in Gosport, England (see Renewable Energy World, January – February 2010).

Mark Roberts, Qinetiq’s strategic business director for energy and environment, is leading the company’s mission to grow its presence in renewables, along with the wider energy and environmental technology sectors.

According to Roberts, it did not take a huge leap of imagination to see how the group’s portfolio of technologies could find a home in these new markets, leading the company to begin carving out a formal position within them.

‘We began to find people approaching us with problems that needed solving in those areas that they couldn’t solve themselves, and quite often we could help. So a couple of years ago we took a formal decision to look at the opportunities and challenges in energy and environmental markets, and at the requirements of those markets. It became clear that in many cases we were already doing a lot of things that are applicable to those markets, not just in renewables but in markets such as Oil & Gas,’ explained Roberts.

‘Translating that directly into renewables, we could immediately see where some of our technologies and expertise would play out. In the case of a wind turbine, for example, you are looking at composite, lightweight materials and control systems, areas in which we were already experienced and capable.’

Wind is an area of renewables which Qinetiq has identified as a significant opportunity. Roberts pointed to the offshore sector, for example, as an area where ‘the incredible challenges of operating at large scale, far offshore’ would bring opportunities in fields such as condition monitoring.

Of course, Qinetiq is far from the only company to have spotted that particular opening. What makes Qinetiq, and others from outside the sector such as fellow defence group BAE Systems, particularly interesting is their ability to transfer the very specific technologies required by the global defence and security industry into a renewable energy context.

A good example is Qinetiq’s work with Vestas on helping reduce the radar signature of wind turbines and their potential impact on military and civilian air traffic control systems – an issue that can see wind farm developments turned down after objections from airspace users.

Qinetiq has long been involved with developing materials that allow military aircraft and ships to operate ‘stealthily’ and avoid detection by radar systems.

In conjunction with Vestas it applied those techniques to one of the company’s V90 turbines in Norfolk, UK, by fitting a prototype ‘stealth’ blade. The blades and other turbine components use a range of radar absorbing materials that are integrated into the manufacturing process and can be tuned to aviation and maritime frequencies.

The result of the five-year collaboration, according to the two partners, is a reduction in turbine radar signature that allows machines using the system to be less of a concern to radar operators.

The radar mitigation project is a good example of the way newcomers such as Qinetiq need to approach the renewables sector, according to Roberts.

‘We knew we had a specialism around the whole radar issue. The challenge for us was to move on from informing people what the problems are, which we were well placed to do in any case, and being able to actually address the problem.’ He continued: ‘Working with a partner such as Vestas, where we were able to benefit from their vast experience in the market, is very important to us.’

Roberts added; ‘Working with Vestas allowed us to incorporate our solution into a real product, which was very significant in showing that we’ve identified an issue in the market and responded accordingly.’

Indeed, Roberts is clear that as a relative newcomer to renewable energy, and the energy sector generally, companies such as Qinetiq have to ‘earn their stripes’.

‘You have to be able to show that you can add value to the industry and you’re not just a defence company that’s homed in on a growing market. People in the sector are generally receptive to new ideas, given that important proviso.’

‘However, as a newcomer you inevitably do sometimes meet some scepticism, so it is up to us to show at every stage that we can do things that other people can’t, and once we do that we are accepted as a valuable contributor.’

The dynamic and evolving nature of the renewables sector can in some respects make it easier for newer players to make their mark, said Roberts. ‘It’s usually the case that in growth markets there are opportunities for newcomers.’

‘Oil & Gas, for example, is a massive market but it is one that to a great extent has already got a supply chain and suppliers in place, so if you are entering it then it is likely to be about taking someone else’s business. In a growing market, there are more opportunities for newcomers if they can bring genuine value.’

An important way for new players like Qinetiq to gain a foothold in renewables comes through the many technology-led projects underway in the sector that are at least partly funded by governments or the EU.

Collaboration on a specific project can enable a new entrant to collaborate with renewables-focused OEMs and other major players in the sector, forging partnerships that can result in market-ready technologies and systems.

‘These are important to us because of where Qinetiq sits on the value chain,’ explained Roberts. ‘We tend to operate in the area between “blue sky” research and the OEMs, taking fundamental research, proving it, applying it and developing it to the point where a manufacturer can take it onwards into the market.’

Roberts said Qinetiq’s ambitions in renewables are ‘significant’, and given the progress the company has already made it is a moot point how long the term ‘newcomer’ will even apply.

However, he acknowledges that creating a track record of success and being seen by the wider industry as a genuine force in the market will be vital to the company’s progress. ‘I’m well aware that when people think of Qinetiq they still often think “defence and security”,’ he said. ‘My premise is that if people don’t know what you are doing, if they have a problem they won’t bother to call you.’

As the renewables sector continues to evolve, it is likely that many more ‘unusual suspects’ will be brought into the fold, almost certainly to the advantage of everyone concerned.

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Renewable Energy World's content team members help deliver the most comprehensive news coverage of the renewable energy industries. Based in the U.S., the UK, and South Africa, the team is comprised of editors from Clarion Energy's myriad of publications that cover the global energy industry.

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