From niche to mainstream: how wind is winning

Welcome to the latest DNV GL Talks Energy podcast series, recorded live at the Singapore International Energy Week (SIEW) 2018. Each week, notable industry thought leaders join us to discuss the hot topics from SIEW and provide their insights into the main drivers behind the global energy transition.

From niche to mainstraem: wind is winning

From niche to mainstream: how wind is winning

Ben Backwell, CEO of the Global Wind Energy Council, highlights the extraordinary growth in the wind industry globally, and how an industry that was once seen as niche and expensive has been transformed into one that is both mainstream and cost-effective.

In this enlightening episode, Ben reveals the advances in technology that have helped to establish wind as a credible alternative to fossil fuels. He also describes how those same technologies have enabled a ‘full system approach’ where wind, solar and hydro complement each other to counteract the challenges traditionally associated with variable energy sources. He outlines why, how and where other renewable sources can work best alongside wind in this way, reducing the need for storage and the reliance on fossil fuel baselines in energy grids. However, he cautions that much of the world, including the Asia Pacific region, has a great deal to do before the infrastructure and regulations needed to support this ‘complementarity’ are in place.

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Ben Backwell GWEC
Ben Backwell, CEO of Global Wind Energy Council
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NARRATOR Welcome to the DNV GL Talks Energy podcast series. Electrification, rise of renewables and new technologies supported by more data and IT systems are transforming the power system. Join us each week as we discuss these changes with guests from around the industry.  

MATHIAS STECK Welcome to a new episode of DNV GL Talks Energy. My guest today is Ben Backwell, CEO of Global Wind Energy Council. Welcome, Ben.

BEN BACKWELL Hi, Mathias. Nice to be here.

MATHIAS STECK Ben, we want to talk about the large upbuild of renewables, in your case, especially wind, going forward, and what that means also for the electricity system. But before we get into this, it would be great if you introduce yourself, and remind us what the Global Wind Energy Council is doing.

BEN BACKWELL The Global Wind Energy Council is the trade association for the global wind industry. We represent big corporate actors in the wind industry: developers, equipment manufacturers, service providers, and consultancies. We also represent all the national wind energy associations around the world.

So, I’m a former journalist and analyst; I have a background in energy and energy policy and I’ve worked in many places around the world. I started writing about renewables about ten or 12 years ago, and then moved into advocacy. I also worked as a consultant, advising large wind and solar companies and utilities on the transition to renewables. And then recently, I took over as the CEO of GWEC a few months ago.

MATHIAS STECK You also published a book a couple of years ago, which is called Wind Power: The Struggle for Control of a New Global Industry, which was published again in a second revised edition just last year. I would like to ask you how is wind winning that struggle against fossil fuels? And what are the struggles wind power is still facing around the world?

BEN BACKWELL The wind industry is a story of incredible success. I think there are very few global industries that have seen the growth that our industry has seen, with the doubling of cumulated capacity every few years, and growth in annual capacity and installations most years. Building to new highs all the time, and really being incredibly successful in going into new markets and growing capacity, and displacing older incumbent forms of energy. I think it’s an energy, which people, when they understand and see it, they react to very positively and they can see the benefits of. It’s gone through a journey, really, of going from something quite niche and rather expensive, compared to other forms of power generation, to being something, which is both mainstream and also, very cost effective and competitive.

MATHIAS STECK In DNV GL’s recently published Energy Transition Outlook 2018, we foresee that in 2050, about 80% of the electricity generation is covered by renewables – solar PV, onshore wind, offshore wind. And we have also digitalization becoming a big topic in our industry. How efficient are today’s wind turbines? And how much more efficient can they become by digitalization?

BEN BACKWELL I think there are two parts to this question around digitalization. The first is that wind turbines have been showing a continuous path towards higher efficiency and more energy production per megawatt. And a lot of this is to do with, actually, just bigger turbines. So, a lot of it is just to do with having, particularly, bigger blades that are able to catch more wind. And the industry has continually pushed the boundary about how big a blade you can put on a tower, and on a hub. And we’ve been able to capture lower wind speeds, capture different types of wind. And there are those efficiencies on the engineering side.

I think, on digitalization, wind turbines have become intelligent. So, the whole system of capturing the wind, and being able to adjust the direction and the pitch of blades, now can be done through digital technology by having sensors on the turbines that can correctly anticipate where wind is going for the maximum capture, and the turbines can react very quickly. The other side of it is that wind turbines can actually talk to each other within windfarms. So, again, you can anticipate the direction, and the type and speed of wind, much better. And then the other gains are on operational maintenance. So, SCADA systems and control centres, and they’re incredibly advanced. You can see into the turbines; you can carry out tasks remotely.

There are digital clones of turbines, which allow you to understand the turbine and anticipate problems in a much more efficient way. So, there are lots of different gains from digitalization. I think the second part of digitalization is about the wider piece around how wind power fits into the power system as a whole. So, wind power, just like solar, is a variable source of power. It’s not just a constant output; it depends on strength of the wind and the availability of the wind. And how do you integrate that into a system that’s basically based on large baseload power with a lot of redundancy built in? And digitalization is very much a part of the answer to that, both in terms of resource assessment, and being able to predict, very accurately, how much a windfarm is going to produce in any given situation. And also, in terms of responding to demand and responding to system demands. And also, on the side of demand from energy consumers, as well. I think that’s going to be a very important part of the picture, being able to turn on and off, or up and down, power, depending on demand. And also, to turn the demand up and down, depending on what’s being produced. So, I think the whole system is becoming more interconnected and more intelligent, and that requires digitalization.

MATHIAS STECK So, with this large build-up rate of renewables, of course, the variability has to be addressed. Apart from digitalization, which you just mentioned, which other technologies coming up would you think help us to integrate renewables smoothly into the grid?

BEN BACKWELL I think the first thing is to try and look at and take a whole system approach, and look at complementarity between different technologies. So, how does wind fit together with solar? How does it fit together with hydro, in some places? How does it fit together with other technologies in other places, mainly solar and hydro in some places?

And I think the second thing is also storage. So, to what extent do we need storage, to be able to deal with the variability of both wind and solar? And the design for markets, I think, and the design for power systems is going to be quite different in different places, depending on local and regional resources and what’s already there, and patterns of demand. And I think it’s really the integration of technologies that’s interesting, and how wind fits together with lots of other things. I think we’re too big, as an industry now, just to be talking about wind, and just to be asking for more wind. We need to show people how it all fits together.

MATHIAS STECK That leads, actually, quite nicely into the next question I had. There was, in the past, a bit of competition between the different renewable energy sources. There was the solar lobby and the wind lobby. And going forward, you, as an expert in communications and public affairs, what is your take on this? How should these different technologies communicate with each other?

BEN BACKWELL First of all, I think the aim is still reduction in carbon, and creating a clean energy system. And in that sense, wind and solar, very much, go to together, and I think are aiming at the same thing and have the same impact on the big picture of carbon reduction. So, I see the introduction of solar as a positive thing.

I think, in terms of competition, what’s really important to recognise is it’s two different types of power. It’s two different types of product. Solar is mainly in sunny places and during the daytime, and particularly at midday. Wind tends to be throughout the day, and especially at night time, and is, obviously, worth doing where it’s windy. It’s not worth doing everywhere.

So, I actually think there’s a complementarity. I think there’s a danger in looking at energy or power just in terms of price. I think you need to look at the price, but also, the value that the power has within the overall system. So, it’s no good just taking the price of megawatt out of a solar, and then just contracting all of solar. Because to put it crudely, you just won’t have any power at night, or you’ll have to spend a lot on storage to store it. So, you need to look at the value of the power within the overall picture, over 24 hours and over a period, and over the seasonality, and that’s how it fits together.

So, in most places, wind and solar are actually quite complementary. It wouldn’t be a good idea to do just solar, because you’re going to end up having to have some kind of what they used to call baseload, which, in many cases, is going to be fossil fuel still, or a lot of storage to store it. Whereas wind and solar, quite often, fit together very, very, very, very well.

MATHIAS STECK We had, the beginning of October, a relatively alarming report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was reminding us that we need to be faster, maybe, in the energy transition. From your point of view, how satisfied are you with the build-up of low carbon generation technology globally, but especially also here, in Asia Pacific?

BEN BACKWELL I think the IPCC report was a real wake-up call. I think there was a lot of optimism after Paris. It’s quite clear that we’re not on track to a sustainable world. In fact, even with a [2°C] increase in global temperatures. On average, we would be looking at fairly catastrophic changes to our liveable environment. So, the IPCC has now said that we need to limit temperature change to [1.5°C]. Now, in order to get there, it’s a tremendous challenge. We’re going to have to really step up what we do, as you said earlier, and that’s consistent with the DNV GL’s Energy Transition Outlook report. Renewables, in terms of power, is going to have to be, pretty much, somewhere between 70% and 85% of the entire power generation system. 

So, how do we get there and what does that mean? At the moment, we’re at something like USD 0.6 trillion per year, in terms of spending. We need to get to something like USD 2.4 trillion per year by 2050. So, there’s just an incredible amount to do, and as someone involved in the renewables industry, I feel both a tremendous sense of opportunity, but also, a real sense of responsibility as well, because of the scale of the challenge. So, I think all of us in the industry, are going to have to really step up our game, and seek alliances and partners, and financing and policy support, to be able to increase the speed of deployment.

MATHIAS STECK We are recording this episode here, at the site of the Singapore International Energy Week 2018, so the last question for that episode I would have for you; what is your major takeaway from this conference?

BEN BACKWELL My major takeaway is that there’s a real desire and willingness to embrace energy transition and change, but things are going far, far too slowly, especially in this part of the world, in terms of the energy transition. I was struck by the first day of the conference, how the incumbent fossil players just seemed to be talking as if nothing had changed, and seemed to be extremely confident about them being the mainstream of the energy system. That’s not the case in the rest of the world. It’s not the case in Europe, it’s not the case in the US, it’s not the case anywhere else. So, I think there’s a lot of work to be done here, to try and capture people’s imagination and to try and really speed up the momentum of change. It is coming and it is happening here, but it needs to happen a lot faster. And I think Southeast Asia is unique, because it’s the only place in the world that is constructing large amounts of new-build coal. And that would have a catastrophic impact, in terms of us being able to meet a two-degree temperature change target, let alone 1.5. So, something needs to change, and something needs to change quickly. And I think a lot of that is up to us showing that our industry, and the renewables industry, and the wind and solar, are both viable and economically competitive alternatives to what exists at the moment.

MATHIAS STECK Thank you very much, Ben, for your interesting insights. And thank you to the listeners. That was Ben Backwell, CEO of Global Wind Energy Council.

BEN BACKWELL Thanks, Mathias.

NARRATOR    Thank you for listening to this DNV GL Talks Energy podcast. To hear more podcasts in the series, please visit dnvgl.com/talksenergy.