Wind R&D: Why it’s More Important than Ever

Demand for wind energy is down. Valuations of wind farms are decreasing. And competition is getting more fierce. It’s a tough market out there – so what is a wind company to do? Innovate.

Innovation isn’t always the easiest thing to pursue in a bad economy. It can be next to impossible to bring new technologies to market when investors are skittish about financing even the most well-established ones. But many of the major wind players agree that now is the best time to focus on improving technologies and differentiating products.

The companies that choose to innovate will come out of the economic malaise in a strong position. Those that don’t will likely fall behind in the race to compete with fossil energies.

“We’ve been working on a lot of things. We’re taking a multi-pronged approach,” says Wally Lafferty, head of the Vestas Americas R&D program. “We’re expanding operations and hiring all kinds of people.”

Two years ago, Vestas opened an R&D facility in Houston, a city rich with aeronautical engineers. The facility is focused on aerodynamics, electro-magnetic machines, new blade designs and grid integration issues. Lafferty says that all the R&D efforts at Vestas revolve around one thing: Bankability.

“Ultimately, we need to drive down the cost of wind electricity so that it’s competitive,” he says.

Other companies like Siemens, GE and Statoil are undertaking similar internal pushes to expand R&D and push the limits of wind turbine size, location, weight and portability. This spring, Siemens released its new 3-MW direct-drive turbine. Vestas is also coming out with a new V112 3-MW machine and a 6-MW offshore machine. And the Norwegian oil and gas giant Statoil is continuing its $65 million program to develop a floating offshore unit for deep waters.

Developing new technologies in-house is one thing, but actually deploying them in the field is another. Some companies with new technologies ready for market are finding it difficult to move on projects.

“It doesn’t matter how good your innovation is, no one will put any money in a wind plant that uses new technology because of the perception that it increases financial risk,” says Fort Felker, director of the National Wind Technology Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Take American Superconductor (AMSC). The company has been working on high-temperature superconductors (HTS) — wires that can carry 150 times more electricity than copper — since the late 80’s. The superconductor power cables constructed with AMSC’s HTS wire can be deployed underground at roughly the same cost as conventional above-ground lines. The cables include distribution and transmission voltages and can be either AC and DC systems.

In the last 12 months, a couple of utilities in the U.S. pulled back on projects to develop cables with these wires.

“If it weren’t for the economic downturn, I’m pretty sure we would have had by now our first commercial contract for superconductor cables for urban applications here in the United States,” says Greg Yurek, Founder and CEO of AMSC.

AMSC recently signed a deal with LS Cable in Korea to deploy 30 miles of superconductors in the country. A number of Chinese companies have also expressed interest in the cables, says Yurek. But business in the U.S. has come to a halt.

AMSC continues to sell mechanical and electronic equipment for wind turbines, waiting for the U.S. market for superconductors to open back up. When it does, Yurek believes that his company will do a lot of business. AMSC was already picked by Tres Amigas LLC to provide $1 billion worth of the company’s DC voltage Superconductor Electricity Pipelines for a project that will unite America’s three power grids. (AMSC has a minority stake in the company). And when utilities start building out new transmission to accommodate wind farms, he says that business will increase further.

“We are confident that this will take off in the U.S.,” says Yurek. “It might happen in other countries first, but the U.S. will be an important market.”

AMSC is also working on a 10-MW direct-drive offshore wind turbine that features a generator with superconductor rotors, potentially making the machine lighter and more efficient. That turbine is still in the early R&D phase, however.

Despite the slowdown in business, AMSC — like most of the other leading wind companies — is trying to stay on top by thinking about innovation. It might be difficult to get projects in the ground today, but it will inevitably get easier as the economy improves. Companies must be prepared to deploy their technologies when the time is right.

For more on wind technology innovation from AMSC, NREL, Statoil and Vestas, listen to this week’s podcast linked above.

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