OWI-Lab EWEA 2013 report

The OWI-Lab team attended the EWEA 2013 event in Vienna this month, the largest wind energy conference in Europe. More than 8000 participants and nearly 400 companies attended the conference and exhibition this year. Although 11.000 MW of wind energy capacity was installed last year, the wind industry is in fact facing tough times just like many other industries due to the economic crisis. In general this was the main insight of the conference, which was clearly noticed at the exhibition as less companies were present than the year before. However, progress is being made in the technological domain in order to further reduce the costs associated with wind energy. Furthermore, OWI-Lab presented a number of  innovative technologies and facilities to support the industry in being more efficient and reliable.

Though times for wind energy in general

The conference opened with keynotes addressing the economic and political challenges which the wind energy industry is currently facing. CEOs from leading companies in the market, such as Alstom, Nordex, GE, Siemens wind power, Areva and the Switch, gave their insights in how to deal with this trend and explained what the consequences are for the industry. Their conclusion was that they do not identify market consolidation in the onshore wind market yet, but they do see this happening in the offshore wind sector. Strong industrial players with profound knowledge of the offshore wind applications, technology and its challenges will likely take the market.. Automation and standardization are also high on the agenda, in order  to be able to cope with ups and down in the market. Taking the automotive industry as an example in order to be more flexible could be a good thing. Lessons learnt and best cases from this mature industry could help the relatively new wind energy sector in becoming more flexible and cut costs.

Investors confidence low due to wobbling support schemes

One of the biggest challenges wind energy faces today is the lack of predictability in government policies. There is no longer a long term or stable vision in a number of countries due to the financial crisis.  This clearly undermines investors' confidence in a sector that is already considerably challenged. In tough economic times, politicians tend to substantiate savings and the effect of renewable energy supporting schemes on the electricity market price  make them an easy target to score votes.

Fatih Birol, Chief Economist at the International Energy Agency (IEA) stated: “public enemy number one to sustainable energy development are fossil fuel subsidies”. It is common knowledge to people that renewable energies get subsidies in order to establish them. But also other energy technologies like fossil fuel and also nuclear energy are subsidised. These subsidies keep fossil fuels artificially cheap and do not contribute to the target to the 20% reduction of CO2 emissions by 2020. A few numbers: in 2011, global fossil fuel subsidies were worth $523 billion, whereas the global renewable subsidies amounted to only $88 billion in the same year.

Further cost reductions

In the meanwhile the costs associated with wind energy decreased further than expected. The sector becomes more and more mature (especially when we focus on onshore wind energy). Robert Clover from MAKE Consulting predicted that after 2020, wind energy will be one of  the cheapest energy technologies (outperforming fossile energy), on condition that investing in this sector continues. Onshore wind energy will achieve grid parity with other energy technologies at most locations by 2015. Offshore wind energy, which is still more costly in both investment and operational costs, will do the same by 2023.

Technological innovations

Aside from the stable support schemes for this new industry, technological innovations are needed to further bring down the costs of wind energy. A clear trend for large onshore and offshore turbines is the shift to medium speed drivetrains and direct drive wind turbines by many players.Vestas, Gamesa, Areva and other companies are already finalizing their medium speed prototypes, which they consider to be a combination of the best of two worlds (high speed and direct drive).   Furthermore, hydrostatic drivetrains are about to enter the market, as industrial giant Mitsubishi develops a 7 MW hydraulic variable speed drivetrain. Alstom presented its vision and decision strategy regarding the drivetrain on the 6 MW direct drive turbine. The first offshore prototype of the Haliade 150 6MW  is currently being installed off the Belgian coast. Also Siemens will test  its 6 MW direct drive offshore wind turbine this year.  The trend towards higher capacity is still ongoing. Mecal presented a feasibility study of a 12 MW medium speed wind turbine design, a giant turbine with rotor diameters of 200 meter. To come to such large turbines, new innovations in composite materials for blades and design of towers are needed, as glass fiber blades and normal tubular towers will become unusable.

Belgian content and OWI-Lab works

A few Belgian based companies presented their innovative solutions, which contribute to more efficiency and reliability in the offshore wind sector. In a joint presentation by ZF Wind Power Antwerpen and Repower, the integrated testing strategy of a 6 MW gearbox was presented. 2000 hours of testing are performed in order to validate the design.  An "8 milestone validation plan" is used to identify weak spots in the design at an early point and to make sure that robust and reliable products are delivered to the client. This presentation showed that more and more OEMs are working closely with their sub-suppliers.  

In the field of electrical components CG Power System presented a 36 kV solution, specifically meant for offshore wind energy. Striving to increase the efficiency and safety of wind turbines even more, CG Power Systems developed the Bio-SLIM® range of transformers, which are cooled by a synthetic ester, a non-hazardous fully bio-degradable transformer fluid. Esters are closer to mineral oils than they are to silicone fluids in their electrical and cooling performance and in their material compatibility. This allows a further optimization of the transformer design and range into the high-voltage (>36 kV) field. Under the witty title ‘Life starts at 36’, CG confirmed the trend towards higher connection voltages of offshore turbines. Cost reduction is its main driver, with higher voltages leading to an increased transport capacity of cables, reduced energy losses and downsizing or even elimination of offshore transformer stations. The sector is working hard to further develop and certify 52 or even 72.5 kV solutions, such as cables, switchgear, fittings and transformers. Elaborating on its existing onshore 52 and 72.5 kV Bio-SLIM © onshore solutions, CG takes up this challenge and contribute to a further cost reduction.

The OWI-Lab/VUB team presented a number of  possible innovations regarding monitoring solutions for offshore wind energy. Researchers from the University of Brussels (VUB) and OWI-Lab developed a structural health monitoring system for offshore turbines. These developments allow gaining insights that are crucial to minimize construction and installations costs, extend the lifetime of offshore structures and reduce their operation and maintenance costs. A way to minimize O&M costs is an early detection or even prediction of a reduced structural integrity.  Structural health monitoring is a key-expertise of VUB. It involves damage detection and structure characterization through observation of the system over time, by using measurement data from different sensors. When it comes to offshore structures, scouring, corrosion, fatigue cracking deterioration of grouted joints can become problematic over time. Continuous monitoring can therefore help prevent failures and make better decisions on when to plan maintenance activities. Currently the team is performing several monitoring campaigns at the offshore wind farm Belwind.



In the field of robustness and reliability OWI-Lab presented a poster explaining the use of a large climate chamber for wind turbine component validation. For remote located regions (for example cold climate regions and desert regions were temperatures of -40 °C tot +50 °C occur frequently), extreme temperature testing as a part of the validation process is a benefit, as maintenance tasks are very expensive there. Ensuring maximum reliability and robustness are paramount for the component and system manufacturers, as more and more turbines are installed remotely because of the ‘not in my back-yard syndrome’. “A large climate chamber could be beneficial to many suppliers to test their components“ a study by Megavind concludes. OWI-Lab invested in such a large climate chamber to carry out tests in the range of -60 °C to +60 °C. It is ready to fulfill this task. The study by Megavind can be found here.

Shortage of wind energy skills

The offshore wind-energy sector may evolve into a major new industrial segment that creates many jobs and exports. According to Agoria, the wind-energy sector may account for about 9,000 new jobs in Flanders by 2020. But a study by EWEA indicates a shortage of approximately 5.500 qualified workers per year. This warning was mentioned in a study by the EU’s Wind Energy Technology Platform (TPWind), based on research by GL. Throughout the value chain this shortage will mainly affect operations and maintenance (O&M), as skilled technician are hard to find. Dedicated training courses are needed and an increased industry input into academic courses could be beneficial. The main findings of the TP Wind study can be found here.

The following presentations have been presented:


(Authors: Christof Devriendt, Gert De Sitter, Yves Van Ingelgem, Pieter Jan Jordaens, Patrick Guillaume)

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(Authors: Yves Van Ingelgem, Daan De Wilde, Christof Devriendt, Gert De Sitter, Pieter Jan Jordaens, Annick Hubin) 

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(Authors: Pieter Jan Jordaens, Stefan Milis, Nikolaas Van Riet, Christof Devriendt)

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Download Full Paper: click here