When reading the news one sometimes gets the impression that evolving towards sustainable power production is only a question of politics and economics. It is often forgotten that, once the political decisions have been taken and the systems have become profitable, everything still has to start.
Implementing renewable energy systems on a large scale is not simply pulling a switch. There are numerous technical and social barriers that have to be taken into account. And each of these barriers put a finite limit on the speed at which growth can take place. It might be frustrating in times when climate change mitigation and energy security require urgent actions, but denying those barriers and forcing things forward without due consideration can turn out to be counter productive in the long run.
Taken in this perspective, one could wonder if the wind market isn’t running too fast for its own good.
In the early nineties, with relatively small scale production of onshore turbines of up to 500 kW, technical problems on wind turbines were rare. Between 2000 and 2006, the global installed capacity more than quadrupled from 17.4 GW to 74.2 GW and turbine sizes were rising to a few MW. During the same period, an increasing number of newly installed wind turbines were facing technical problems with gearboxes (bearings, alignment, housing, etc.).
According to Jan van Egmond, Managing Director of the consultancy firm Quality in Wind, those problems...
'…can at least partly be explained by a continuous market pressure to increase the size and capacity of turbines. In some cases inadequate built-in safety factors may be chosen, or too little time taken between prototype stage and mature commercial product to solve unavoidable teething problems.'
Most of the mechanical gearbox problems now seem to be under control. However, in the meantime the wind industry has had to face a major new problem: excessive corrosion on offshore wind turbines is causing large wind farms like Horns Rev in Denmark to be taken out of service provisionally.
It is a dangerous game to try to cope with teething problems only after massive production and implementation is already underway. Recalls are extremely costly on several counts. They can easily bankrupt young companies and ultimately damage the reputation of the entire technology. Such setbacks can require decades to recover. If the wind industry is to be truly sustainable, it will have to withstand market pressure and execute all of the laboratory and prototype testing normally required for the successful launch of new product types.
Along with technical barriers, there are social barriers that limit the rate of growth of sustainable energy systems. Energy infrastructure is deeply embedded in the fabric of society, so before a successful move forward can be accomplished, all stakeholders need to be on board. This has been aptly proven by the tribulations of the Cape Wind Project, a 420 MW offshore project on the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts in the U.S. Despite public opinion surveys showing that a majority of the people in the region support the project, it has been stalled by opposition from local residents and some environmental groups.
An approach like that used in the Spanish region of Navarre could have avoided such problems. Spain has about the same wind energy capacity as the U.S. and seventy per cent of it is located in the small province of Navarre. This region has very good wind conditions, but the real secret of their success might lie in their integration program giving each stakeholder a voice in the process. A public/private company was established whose shareholders include the government, the regional electricity supply company, local industry, and the regional bank. Residents, businesses, and environmental groups were offered project buy-ins. By being involved in the process, residents have realized that environmental and socio-economic benefits of wind energy outweigh the disadvantages.
Creating structures that involve all stakeholders in the development process right from the start takes time, but makes the development more secure. It avoids the situation where one day the whistle blows on the project and everything goes back to zero.
Clearly, the rate of growth of sustainable energy systems is limited by both technical and social barriers. It is of no use to try to pretend that these barriers do not exist; they must be faced and overcome.Log in to post comments