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Fewer tilted wigs, increased focus, and new directions: Reflections from WINDPOWER 2013

I wrote this post while flying home from AWEA’s WINDPOWER 2013 conference that just concluded in Chicago, Illinois. This was the twelfth WINDPOWER event I have attended, and I’d like to share my reflections on this year’s conference, while also reflecting on experiences from my previous eleven.

WINDPOWER 2013 was held soon after the U.S. industry set a record of installing 13 GW of new wind capacity in 2012—but with expectations of substantially less new-build activity in coming years. Industry projections indicate on the order of 10 GW of new installations, in aggregate, during 2013 and 2014. This downturn has shifted emphasis from new construction to improving returns from the much larger (60 GW) base of operating capacity—whether 10 months or 10 years old—where squeezing more MWh out of what we have already “planted” represents new opportunities. And soon the industry will increase emphasis on repowering and life extension for assets that reach the end of their useful lives.

The conference included several DNV GL presentations on asset optimization among the eleven DNV GL posters and presentations, and eleven more “Meet the Experts!” sessions held in our booth which covered wide-ranging issues including applying European offshore wind experience to the U.S. market, turbine lightning protection, actual project performance updates, and NERC compliance.

Overall, I was impressed by innovations, such as leaps in sensor technology and computing power integrated into wind turbines to reduce physical loads on equipment, deployment of new IT systems to better manage the “back office” of wind farm operations, and integrated battery storage that provide ramp rate controls for wind turbines at the unit level. There was also much more talk of pairing wind projects with mass storage—from conventional pumped storage to high-tech flow batteries—to help reduce the impact of wind’s intermittency on grids as wind and solar penetration rates increase.

Compared to recent years, WINDPOWER 2013 had a much smaller exhibit hall and reduced attendance, but with an increase in quality. The arms race of bigger and fancier exhibits seems to have subsided, with more emphasis on solutions that matter: building a sustainable, economically viable industry. Meetings with clients and industry partners felt deeper, more substantive, and more collaborative. So, while fewer people attended, the right core of people attended.

To help explain my next reflection, I must introduce a favorite slang term that I learned from colleagues almost a decade ago—wig tilt. Those colleagues are Tim McCoy and David Malcolm, wise DNV GL structural and controls engineers who during their careers have substantially advanced the wind power sector. (Incidentally, David soon retires from DNV GL at the age of 70.) The term is an affectionate name applied to ideas that, while usually creative, are technological or economic dead-ends. Looked at positively, wig tilts represent new designs, showcasing excitement and innovation. However from another facet, they represent wasted resources—think about how much better the wind power industry would be if the talent, time, and money invested in wig tilt ideas were channeled to substantive improvements…many of which are still to come!

And there’s been plenty of wig tilt hardware exhibited at the WINDPOWER conferences I’ve attended in the past. Typical characteristics of the “next best wind turbine” that earn wig tilt status include:

  • Insufficient swept area to capture anything close to claimed power output.
  • Flimsy devices that may be suited to modest power production in typical winds, but by virtue of architecture and/or controls are almost certain to be destroyed by the storm-force winds that will inevitably come its way.
  • Devices that make interesting kinetic sculpture, but will never repay their investment even with favorable assumptions.

It’s important to note that care should be taken before dismissing novel ideas, for occasionally “the next big thing” does indeed come from those who challenge conventional wisdom. But, I’ve seen far too many fancy booths with excited staff promoting wig tilt ideas at WINDPOWER—but seldom see these same ideas return for a second or third conference. Fortunately, WINDPOWER 2013 had far fewer wig tilt booths than past events, which I take as another sign of a maturing industry.

In that sense, WINDPOWER 2013 attracted fewer participants with “get rich quick” desires or those who were attracted by the near-cult status that wind rose to in recent years. Yes, the heady years of 2005 to 2009 brought much-needed talent to the industry, but perhaps many new entrants were in it for the wrong reasons, or at least reasons that didn’t work out over time. Thus, wind power has evolved to include fewer garage tinkerers with wacky and/or get-rich-quick ideas, to more focus on economics, value-add, and quality, all in the name of driving down the cost of electricity from wind. In this sense, wind is following a familiar path of maturation and consolidation of countless industries that preceded it, from automobiles to aircraft to internet retailing (Amazon was in the news this week for now advocating collection of state taxes on internet sales!).

This week also brought inspiration from new leadership within AWEA—both from board chair Gabriel Alonso and AWEA’s incoming Executive Director Tom Kiernan during the conference’s opening general session. I was also moved by comments made by Dennis McGinn, ACORE’s President and CEO, at an offsite event hosted by Baker & McKenzie, ACORE, GCube Insurance Services, and the Trade Commission of the Embassy of Spain. I noted these insights by Kiernan, Alonso, and McGinn:

  • Tom Kiernan’s sharing of “You help make the sky blue,” a young child’s summary of what his father (Kiernan) did when he went off to his office. This was a terrific synopsis of the notion that tighter emissions standards for fossil power, and increased use of renewable power, help make the air cleaner.
  • Gabriel Alonso shared five key objectives for the year ahead:
    • Strengthen AWEA.
    • Enhance proactive communications.
    • Define clear long-term goals.
    • Develop unity.
    • Use the “power of many” to outweigh the “power of money” (supplied by wind’s detractors).
  • Dennis McGinn spoke of the triple bottom line that wind power promotes: energy security, environmental improvement, and economic sustainability, including an example of how these are wrapped together in the Twentynine Palms Marine Base Microgrid.

So, while (for now) WINDPOWER has returned to its mid-2000’s scale, the industry has traveled far in the past decade, and has an exciting, focused agenda ahead, with fewer tilted wigs and an emphasis on what matters over the long term.

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