The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of FORESIGHT Climate & Energy
Today’s wind industry is unique in many ways but that does not mean it cannot learn from sectors such as automotive and aerospace
The wind industry registered its third-highest level of annual installations in 2022, with 78 gigawatts of turbine capacity commissioned. This equated to a year-on-year growth rate of 9%, according to the Global Wind Energy Council. It should have been a bumper year for wind turbine makers, yet western manufacturers had a terrible time.
Across Europe, turbine orders plummeted 47% in 2022, the industry body WindEurope said, and there were zero offshore wind final investment decisions. The pain was partly caused by stalling project pipelines, a result of permitting challenges in Europe and regulatory uncertainty in the United States—up to the signing of the Inflation Reduction Act, at least.
But even without faltering orders, western turbine makers would probably have had a turbulent year. Hit by high commodity prices and prolonged supply chain challenges, many manufacturers found themselves shipping products at a loss.
The financial stresses of 2022 highlighted the fragility of turbine manufacturing economics. For years, the sector has been pumping money into a race to produce bigger and better turbines.
The rate of new product development is such that a turbine maker barely has time to recoup the costs of a given model before it must start commercialising another one. It only takes a minor imbalance to tip things into the red.
Admittedly, the underlying dynamics of this market are unusual. Making bigger turbines is the easiest way to cut the levelised cost of wind energy, so there is considerable customer pressure for manufacturers to scale up their products.
Western manufacturers face strong competitive pressures from China, where turbine makers have seized the upper hand in terms of product scale. Long seen as laggards in terms of wind technology, Chinese turbine makers are now demonstrating high-performance manufacturing capabilities that threaten the market share held by western players.
Clearly, such trends are problematic from a design and manufacturing point of view. Automakers may also bring new models to market on a regular basis but at least they can rely on the same components and chassis for years or even decades.
In wind, though, every leap to a higher rating represents a feat of innovation and a risk of problems. This is clear from looking at components such as gearboxes, which “often do not reach their expected 20-year lifetime,” according to the US Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
Nevertheless, as the wind turbine manufacturing industry looks back on a challenging 2022 and considers how to drive resilience in 2023, it is worth seeing if there are lessons that can be learned from other industries.
Automotive and aerospace are among the most relevant due to their dependence on large-scale precision manufacturing, their globalised supply and demand chains, their reliance on configuration management and their support from domestic policies.
STRIVE FOR STANDARDISATION
Wind has come a long way thanks to a standard “Danish concept” featuring three blades mounted upwind of a tower on a horizontal nacelle.
But in aerospace, the Chinook helicopter airframe has been around for 60 years and automotive models such as the Chevrolet Suburban and Ford F-Series have been in continuous production for more than seven decades, with constant improvements.
Wind’s need for constant scaling may pose limits on what components can be carried over from one generation to the next, but standardising as fast and far as possible is a good way to keep costs down while improving reliability. And there are areas of innovation that can be applied irrespective of scale.
Turbine supply chains and manufacturing are relatively mature but have yet to achieve the level of sophistication seen in aerospace, where safety dictates that every component and configuration is carefully recorded. Keeping detailed records of the history and configuration of each turbine component might not be as critical in wind as it is in aerospace, where “run to fail” is not an option.
However, with current technology it would not be hard to improve accessibility to components, configuration and testing data, helping to avoid failures and improving the reliability and efficiency of machines. The impact would allow OEMs to better focus on their core differentiation.
INCREASE THE USE OF DIGITAL
Automotive manufacturers use digitisation to improve performance across product design, manufacturing, field operations and warranties. In 2021, for example, Porsche released a software update that creates a digital twin of each of its Taycan cars, allowing remote monitoring and data analysis.
Tying such tools together in a digital ecosystem makes it easy to feed data from operations and warranties back into design and manufacturing, allowing for continuous, iterative improvements to products.
The process also helps achieve a much better understanding of costs, a key issue for wind turbine manufacturers as they struggle to maintain profitability.
HIGH-PERFORMANCE SUPPLY CHAINS
US automakers learnt the hard way that they could not leave performance to chance. In the 1970s, their dominance of the US market was challenged by an influx of cheaper and better-made models from Japan.
This forced the industry to improve the cost and quality of its supply chain, with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) working collaboratively with suppliers. The wind industry is moving in this direction, with China rather than Japan providing the competitive drive, but perhaps more could be done.
This list should in no way be taken to imply that wind turbine OEMs are not working hard to stay profitable while seeking to drive down the cost of their products. They are in fact doing a great deal, under difficult circumstances.
However, as the last year has shown, these efforts are not always successful. If borrowing tools and techniques from more mature industries could help, then why not try? •
Brian Wilson, from McLaren Engineering, and Jason Rios of Sentient Science, provided learnings from their experiences to this article
If you have a thoughtful response to the opinions expressed here or if you have an idea for a thought leadership article regarding an aspect of the global energy transition, please send a short pitch of 200 words outlining your thoughts and credentials to: email@example.com.
With careful planning and utilising materials within a circular economy, the wind industry can reduce its waste during the production process, says Olivier Fontan, the new CEO at blade manufacturer LM Wind Power
A fully renewable energy future is within reach and storage is definitely required, but it is a combination of measures that will truly make it possible, argues Johan Söderbom of EIT InnoEnergy
Venture capitalists are putting record amounts of money into climate tech, drawn by the opportunity to make money while fostering the innovation needed for decarbonisation. Digitalisation remains a focus, but investors are increasingly looking to tap into asset-heavy investment opportunities that are crucial to the energy transition
Wind power will be central to the energy transition, but it is currently stuck in the mire. Unsticking itself is all but straightforward
Wind energy has gone mainstream, but the industry needs to prove it remains an exciting and innovative place to work to attract the top brains necessary to deal with the challenges and opportunities of the energy transition, says Malgosia Bartosik, Deputy CEO of WindEurope
Financial problems are currently the biggest block to wind energy achieving its full potential in India and with elections forecast for 2019, the situation will not be resolved in the coming months
The Biden Administration’s offshore wind ambition will prove futile unless the transmission infrastructure is there to support it. Upgrading the US’s ageing grid system and providing further regulatory support must be the new president’s priority to make the most of the country’s burgeoning offshore wind sector, says Liz Burdock from the Business Network for Offshore Wind
The growth of wind power capacity is accelerating globally, with 2020 a record year for new installations. But with the expansion comes a growing mass of production waste, emissions from manufacturing and transport, and discarded components from retired machines. The industry’s turbine makers are facing up to the problem but proposed solutions remain commercially immature
Floating platforms could open up swathes of the ocean with water depths beyond 60 metres to the offshore wind sector. To tap into those areas, though, floating offshore wind first needs to become less expensive. A European research project is looking to secure some of those price gains to make the technology finally competitive
Europe’s wind industry is well-versed in community engagement and has a track record in bringing employment and social benefits to populations close to projects. But developers still face opposition and frequently suffer setbacks, a problem that could mean renewable energy targets are missed if lawmakers fail to act