Of all the omens to signal an upturn in the fortunes of the wind power industry, a transformation of windfarms from eyesore to tourist attraction must be one of the least expected . . . but it has happened! And on the South coast of England of all places, where people are more likely to protest against change rather than relish the new. Fishermen and divers in Brighton are now offering boat trips to see Rampion, a 400 MW offshore wind farm operated by RWE that was once vilified for spoiling the views from a nearby national park.
Recent world events have also underlined that the case for developing renewable energy rather than relying on fossil fuels is not just environmental. If you want energy that is affordable and secure, then you need a supply that is close to home and does not rely upon fleets of tankers and pipelines thousands of miles long that cross multiple national borders.
More positively, the technology underpinning wind power is becoming ever more sophisticated and responding to the challenges of producing cheap, safe, and secure power. There have been worries that wind turbines interfere with wildlife and radar, yet research is delivering answers to those, while blade technology is continuing to improve. The surge of offshore wind and innovative technologies such as floating foundations promise to deliver large amounts of wind energy in locations where its deployment would have been unimaginable until very recently. Even the familiar wind turbine shape may change as researchers explore the potential of horizontal axis wind turbines (HAWT) and vortices.
New methods of manufacturing such as 3-D printing are also coming into their own as the industry seeks ways to site wind farms in ever more remote areas. And it is not simply the turbines that are evolving, so is the distribution network as it must adapt to an energy source that is not constant.
The relatively low cost of electricity generated from wind versus that generated from fossil fuels is also an important factor in the rising fortunes of wind power. In the US, for example, wind energy costs have decreased from over US$ 0.55 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) in 1980, to an average of under US $0.03 per kWh today. That scale differs according to local conditions, naturally, but it shows just how cost-effective wind power can be. It is certainly growing, as the most recent figures from The Energy Institute in June 2023, show. Global output from wind energy reached 898,824 terawatt hours in 2022, a 9.1% increase on the previous year and a 12.9% rate of annual growth since 2012.
The rate at which the world’s nations are building wind power generators is proof that wind is increasingly seen as a winner. Nearly 78 GW of wind power capacity was added in 2022, the third highest year in history (only the two previous years were higher), bringing total installed wind capacity to 906 GW, a year-on-year (YoY) growth of 9%.
Of this total, 68.8 GW derived from new onshore wind installations, with offshore accounting for the remainder. China continued to lead global offshore wind development, with 5 GW. Europe connected 2.5 GW of capacity in 2022, with France and Italy each commissioning their first commercial offshore wind projects. Europe’s total offshore wind capacity is 30 MW, 46% of which is from the UK.
An uncertain global geopolitical context is feeding into this renewed focus on renewable energy as a way to enhance energy security and resilience, particularly in the US and Europe.
In Europe, the REPowerEU3 program was introduced, committing the EU to reducing reliance on Russian gas by 2030 or earlier. The program aims to address permitting bottlenecks and other obstacles hindering the deployment of renewable energy projects. The United States, meanwhile, enacted the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which revolutionizes the country’s approach to renewables, decarbonized transport, energy storage, the electricity grid, and energy efficiency. This legislation has already spurred substantial investment in the sector. Similarly, China’s 14th Five-Year Plan, covering the period 2021-2025, was approved, signaling a commitment to innovation-driven, sustainable, and low-carbon development. The plan sets targets for reducing carbon intensity and aims to achieve peak CO2 emissions before 2030.
Against this background, GWEC (Global Wind Energy Council) Market Intelligence forecasts that new wind power installations will surpass 100 GW in 2023. And that is just the start. It believes there will be an average of more than 136 GW of new installations every year until 2027, totaling an extra 680 GW under current policies – a projected compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 15% for the next five years.
It’s clear the wind energy sector is growing rapidly, but it is fast enough for the global energy sector to achieve net‐zero CO2 emissions by 2050? In Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector, the IEA (International Energy Agency) sets out the bare minimum required.
This report found that fossil fuels still made up 82% of the world’s total energy consumption in 2022, in line with the year before, causing greenhouse gas emissions to climb by 0.8% as the world used more energy overall. And renewable energy sources – excluding hydro power – met just 7.5% of the world’s energy demand last year.
Despite the tough target, there are many grounds for optimism, however, as the new priorities for affordable and secure energy take hold and as technology delivers ever more efficiencies in building and operating wind farms and distributing or storing the energy they produce. To give one example, wind turbines built in the 1980s had 15-metre (49-foot) blades and could generate 0.05MW of electricity. Today, an offshore wind turbine with blades more than 100 meters long generates up to 14MW.
Floating offshore wind turbines (FOWT) are one of the technical advances seen as having the greatest potential. Not only are they cheaper than fixed foundation turbines, but they also have two crucial advantages: access to deeper waters beyond 60 meters and simplified turbine installation even in mid-depth conditions of 30-50 meters.
Compared to fixed installations, FOWT are simpler to manufacture and install because they can be built and assembled on land and then towed to the offshore installation site. As a result, FOWT have far less impact on the environment because they require much less invasive activity on the seabed.
With approximately 80% of the world’s offshore wind potential located in areas with water depths exceeding 60 meters, the growth potential for floating offshore wind is significant. By 2030, GWEC forecasts a rapid acceleration in the floating offshore wind sector, with an estimated market capacity of 16.5 GW. China has already installed its first floating offshore wind turbine, the Three Gorges Pioneer, and more projects are underway.
While exploiting deeper waters using FOWT is likely to be the most significant boost to wind generated power, research and development is still notching up the output of inshore installations.
The trend toward ever larger wind turbines continues. For instance, GE’s offshore Haliade-X turbine stands 853 feet tall and offers 45% more energy output compared to other offshore turbines. In Norway, an offshore wind catching system employs multiple smaller turbines arranged in a staggered formation, simplifying assembly and maintenance without the need for heavy equipment. The US Department of Energy (DOE) has suggested that wind turbines will be two to three times larger by 2035, with a median of 5.5 MW for land-based turbines, and 17 MW for offshore turbines. It argues that this will drive substantial cost declines of between 35% and 50% by 2050 for both land-based and offshore wind installations.
Turbines can be turned on their side too, and there are advantages to vertical axis wind turbines (VAWT): their engines are more efficient than traditional horizontal wind turbines, they can be laid out in more compact arrangements and their performance improves when organized in a grid.
Research has shown that replacing traditional horizontal axis wind turbines (HAWT) with large-scale vertical-axis wind turbines (VAWT) could increase power output by 15% when the second rotor was positioned three turbine diameters downstream and at a 60-degree angle to the wind direction. When VAWT were arranged in a series, the power output showed an additional increase of around 3%
There are also novel approaches emerging to lowering the costs of installation and operation while improving the efficiency of wind generated electricity. For example, the Spanish start-up Vortex Bladeless is developing a vortex-induced vibration resonant wind generator that harnesses wind energy from a phenomenon of vorticity called vortex shedding – a bladeless turbine that requires less maintenance because it has fewer moving parts than a conventional generator.
If you can eliminate the blade, why not eliminate the need for a tower, one of the more expensive components? Airborne wind energy (AWE) does just that. AWE harnesses wind energy through two main principles. One approach involves mini-wind turbines and generators mounted on the flying wing to convert wind energy into electricity. Another method entails the wing pulling on a tether, causing it to unwind from a ground-based drum, which then drives a generator. This ground generation technique requires the tether to be reeled back in, resulting in a pumping or “yoyo” motion.
In Europe the sector has its own association – Airborne Wind Europe – and is already working with larger utilities. German companies RWE Renewables and SkySails Power agreed to pilot a 200-kW project to fly a 120m2 kite up to 400 meters above ground to harness high-altitude winds for generating electricity. Norwegian firm Kitemill AS said that after successful initial autonomous flights—in which its 30-kW technology proved its potential to generate energy— it plans to commercialize its first demo kite park
In South Korea, Odin Energy is promoting its concept for a silent, 12-floor wind tower that incorporates VAWT and may be mounted on top of buildings. The company says this system harnesses wind power by creating a vortex through the utilization of wind pressure differentials and can generate electricity from gentle breezes of no more than 3.5 m/s. Odin Energy says this will produce at least four times more electricity compared to existing wind power systems, while occupying only 1/80th of the space they require. The company estimates the capital cost for a first-of-its-kind 10-story tower would be around US$ 1.4 million, with a levelized cost of energy (LCOE) of around US$ 90 per megawatt-hour.
The challenge to reduce the costs of manufacturing and installation is taking many forms and encompasses every stage of creating an operational windfarm, from the blades of the turbine right through to installation on-site.
In manufacturing a blade for a wind turbine, one of the most time-intensive and labor-intensive processes is producing a plug, or a full-size representation of the final blade, which is then used to make the mold. To get around this, the US Department of Energy’s Wind Energy Technologies Office and Advanced Manufacturing Office are partnering with public and private organizations to apply additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, to streamline the process.
3D printing is also being used to get around the sheer logistics of transporting components to site. The bigger the turbine, the greater the efficiency and the output. But there is a limit to how large these can be if they have to be prefabricated and then taken, piece by piece, to site. In the US, the width of the base, for instance, cannot exceed 4.5 meters because of transportation limitations, which limits the height of the turbine to 100 meters. One way of avoiding this is to print the pedestal on-site, a project that GE Renewable Energy, cement manufacturer LaFargeHolcim, and COBOD International are now working upon. So far, COBOD has manufactured a 10-meter-tall 3D-printed concrete base using its large-scale construction 3D-printing technology but the goal is 200-meters. Similar transportation restrictions affect the rotor blades too. Here the focus is on producing lighter blades from materials such as carbon fiber so that components up to 80m long can be more easily transported and then assembled on site.
Safeguarding the environment
The wind power industry is experiencing significant developments and advancements that are transforming the perception and viability of wind energy. Wind farms, once considered eyesores, are now becoming tourist attractions, showcasing the shift towards clean and sustainable energy sources.
More importantly, recent changes in the geopolitical landscape have provided the much-needed nudge to governments to upgrade wind energy to a ‘must have’ rather than ‘nice but not essential’.
Meanwhile, technological innovations and research are expanding the sector’s potential. Floating offshore wind farms present an exciting opportunity for accessing deeper waters while vertical axis wind turbines (VAWT) and innovative designs like airborne wind energy (AWE) promise to improve efficiency and reduce environmental impact. Advances in manufacturing techniques, such as 3D printing, not only trim costs but extend the areas where wind power is feasible.
However, to meet global energy goals, further efforts are needed to accelerate the transition to renewable energy sources and increase the share of wind power in the global energy mix. With continued investments, policy support, and collaboration, wind power will play a crucial role in achieving a sustainable and low-carbon future.
This is a mission we are committed to at Abdul Latif Jameel. Our flagship renewable energy business FRV operates more than 50 solar and wind plants spanning five continents and is anticipating an installed energy capacity of 4 GW by 2024. In February 2023, it opened an office in the UK, where it currently has more than 80 MW of projects in operation, 200 MW under construction and more than 1 GW under development. The location will also house its Global Batteries Excellence Centre. Its battery energy storage system (BESS) plants at Contego and Holes Bay, meanwhile, were the two best performing battery assets in the country, according to the ranking prepared by the monitoring tool MODO Energy.
It also announced its intention to enter the German market, with plans to supply 800,000 homes with clean energy. The opening of the London and German offices will positively contribute to FRV’s goal of reaching 1 GW of installed renewable energy capacity in Europe by 2025.
As part of this ongoing expansion, earlier this year FRV confirmed plans to develop its first solar plant in New Zealand, a 52 MW project at Lauriston, north of Christchurch. This was swiftly followed by plans for a further three solar farms with an expected 400 MW of renewable electricity capacity, along with joint venture partner, Genesis Energy.
Meanwhile in neighboring Australia, it has reached financial close on its solar development at Walla Walla in New South Wales, it’s fifth solar farm in the state and its tenth in Australia as a whole, representing a total power capacity of 1 GW.
“We are in the foothills of an exciting new energy landscape, one which could transform the global energy sector and make a huge difference to our carbon emissions,” says Fady Jameel, Deputy President and Vice Chairman, Abdul Latif Jameel.
“Renewables can help bring down the cost of powering our homes, offices and vehicles. It can give people control back over their lives while helping to preserve our delicate ecosystem for generations to come. Wind power is at the forefront of these exciting changes, and we must do all we can to optimize its potential. But it cannot do it alone.”
“As exciting as recent advances in wind power technology are, we cannot let ourselves become complacent. Net zero is a challenge at which we cannot fail. We must double-down on our efforts to build a brighter, more sustainable future for our society and our planet.”