THE ECONOMICS OF THE ENERGY BUSINESS ARE SHIFTING QUICKER |THAN ANYONE EVER THOUGHT POSSIBLE
OFFSHORE WIND turbines are about to become higher than the Eiffel Tower, allowing the industry to supply subsidy-free clean power to the grid on a massive scale for the first time.
Manufacturers led by Siemens are working to almost double the capacity of the current range of turbines, which already have wing spans that surpass those of the largest jumbo jets. The expectation those machines will be on the market by 2025 was at the heart of contracts won by German and Danish developers last week to supply electricity from offshore wind farms at market prices by 2025.
Just three years ago, offshore wind was a fringe technology more expensive than nuclear reactors and sometimes twice the cost of turbines planted on land. The fact that developers such as Energie Baden-Wuerttemberg AG and Dong Energy A/S are offering to plant giant turbines in stormy seas without government support show the economics of the energy business are shifting quicker than anyone thought possible - and adding competitive pressure on the dominant power generation fuels coal and natural gas.
"Dong and EnBW are banking on turbines that are three to four times bigger than those today," said Keegan Kruger, analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. "They will be crucial to bringing down the cost of energy."
About 50 miles (80 kilometres) off the coastline in the German North Sea, where the local fish and seagulls don't complain about the view of turbines in their back yards, offshore wind technology is limited only to how big the turbines can grow. Dong has said it expects machines able to produce 13 to 15MW each for its projects when they're due to be completed in the middle of the next decade - much bigger than the 8-megawatt machines on the market now.
Just one giant 15MW turbine would produce power more cheaply than five 3MW machines, or even two with an 8MW capacity. That's because bigger turbines can produce the same power from a fewer number of foundations and less complex grid connections. The wind farm's layout can be made more efficient, and fewer machines means less maintenance.
"Right now, we are developing a bigger turbine," said Bent Christensen, head of cost of energy at Siemens Wind Power A/S, in a phone interview. "But how big it will be we don't know yet."
Larger turbines are heavier, placing a natural limit on size, said Christensen. Lightweight materials such as carbon fibre may be required to reduce the heaviness of the rotor and the blades as the turbines grow.
"If we just go 10 years back, nobody could imagine what we're doing today," he said. "When you try to predict the future you have to be quite careful."
The scale of the turbines may not even stop at 15MW. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, a unit of Lockheed Martin is working on components for a possible 50MW turbine that would have blades 100 metres (about 328 feet) long.
These gigantic blades would be able to fold away to reduce the risk of damage at dangerous wind speeds. Siemens, along with Vestas Wind Systems and General Electric, are advising on the research program that's funded by the US Department of Energy.
In the nearer term, Denmark, the home of wind energy, last month said it would expand the country's main offshore wind test site to demonstrate turbines that will soar as high as 330 metres, taller than the Eiffel Tower. That could take the generation capacity past 10MW, enabling turbine makers like Vestas and Siemens to challenge the boundaries of current capacity.
"The question of turbine capacity and wing span has never really been an issue from a technological perspective," Jens Tommerup, chief executive of MHI Vestas Offshore Wind A/S, a partnership Vestas has with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, said in an email. "We have already taken the capacity of our 8MW platform to 9MW. The real question is what can the market support."
Turbines will get bigger if developers and governments allow. "The answer lies more in stable, visible volume targets rather than the technology itself," Tommerup said.
The auction in Germany was a jaw-dropping moment for industry analysts, many of whom expected a steady decline in prices but not another record. Deep-sea projects in Germany and the cable arrays needed to reach substations off the coast make these developments more complex than in neighbouring states. The idea that Dong and EnWB bid for zero subsidy was a shock - and a first for projects of this scale.
"This is a wake up call that the fossil-fuel power industry in Europe is on its way out," Urs Wahl, manager of public affairs at Germany's Offshore Wind Industry Allianz, said in a phone interview.
The previous record low price was 49.90 euros a megawatt hour, won by Vattenfall AB in September. Bloomberg New Energy Finance had anticipated bids near 55 euros. The average price in the end was just 4.40 euros per megawatt-hour because one Dong Energy project secured a subsidy of 60 euros per megawatt-hour. The others bid zero, meaning they'll get paid at market electricity prices.
"This option is opening up now as a subsidy-free production of electricity," said Magnus Hall, chief executive officer of Vattenfall, in an interview in Brussels on Wednesday. "That really moves offshore into a perspective of continued growth."
Competition in the German round may have been even tougher than other recent contests because it was the last chance for developers to win contracts for projects they've worked on for years, according to Deepa Venkateswaran, analyst at Sanford C Bernstein & Co.
The "surprise" result highlights that "developers appear to be increasingly banking on scale" including cost cuts expected in the future and perhaps higher wholesale power prices, said analysts at Jefferies Group.
The industry's relentless focus on efficiency and cost cuts have come at a big price for turbine makers. Vestas, which has installed more turbines than any other company, closed a third of its factories and cut more than 3,000 jobs to deal with three years of losses stemming from declining turbine prices. South Korea's CS Wind Corp., a turbine-tower maker, cut 54 jobs at a factory in Scotland on April 18, saying that "extremely low prices requested by developers of projects" created gaps in its order book.
"Clearly, this puts us all under pressure," Ralf Peters, a spokesman for turbine maker Nordex SE, said in a phone interview from Hamburg. His company, which builds only onshore machines, has already seen how ultra-low bids in the onshore wind market in Chile are squeezing the supply chain.
Bloomberg's Marine Strauss contributed.