Where’s the innovation?


April 23, 2012

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One question that was pondered by the editorial team last week at EWEA, was whether the industry has yet fostered a culture of innovation.

Of course there are new designs unveiled reasonably frequently, but in truth these are more variations on a theme, as opposed to a wholesale reinvention.

Take the wind turbine for example. In the computing hardware industry, components are said to conform, on average, to Moore’s law – that is, evolving design will enable chip performance to double every two years. So far, it is a rule of thumb and pace of change that has held constant for the past 40 years, and is expected to continue until 2020.

But in the wind industry, where basic turbine design goes back 30-odd years, the pace of change is much slower.

Of course it can be argued that one is comparing apples and oranges, but the fact remains the computing industry used its cost base as an incentive to keep innovating.

We have seen the emergence of direct drive turbines, but only very recently. Designs for low wind profile regions are also only just emerging too.

But what of vertical axis machines, for example? This idea, once given attention, seems to have been quietly shelved without any clear explanation.

The answer lies in the classic conundrum of risk versus reward, and is another reason why the renewables sector, and wind in particular, needs to think differently from the established models of sector growth.

From the outside, the industry all too often found to be ‘siloed’ – that is firms operating in isolation without a consensus on working to a mutual benefit of driving the industry forwards.

What’s staring us in the face is the need for collaboration – at all levels – from firms within the industry, Governments, policy makers and investors.

Felix Ferlemann in his EWEA conference address, which we touched on last week, emphasised the need for the wind industry to learn from the automotive sector. But when was the last time that wind the industry saw a large joint-venture design or project? The car industry is littered with examples of shared ‘platforms’, leaving individual manufacturers to pursue minor styling differences and badge engineering to price differentiate and still operate profitably.

Some will argue that this will be to the detriment of the profit motive for firms to plough on with their own inventions, but if this were the case, surely the industry should be further along the development timeline?

In the most likely scenario, the industry will continue its technology development in a piecemeal fashion.

Which makes this week’s announcement from the Government’s Clean Energy Ministerial that the United States and United Kingdom will collaborate on floating turbine technology all the more interesting.

If successful, the project should facilitate the development of designs that enables the offshore wind industry to cut its costs in tower and foundation installations, and secure greater wind potential by being further out to sea.

It’s an opportunity for the industry to prove itself capable of working to a set of common goals and fostering a spirit of invention and innovation it currently lacks. Time will tell whether the sector has truly seized the nettle.

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