Winds of Change

Wind Turbine Manufacturers at the Tipping Point

Vestas’ announcement of its first quarter results came as another setback to the wind energy sector and mirrors the predicament of a number of wind turbine manufacturers, which is already suffering from turbine overcapacity, project delays and rising costs.

Vestas has been losing market shares in new installed wind turbine capacity since 2006, a stark contrast to its cost-competitive Chinese counterparts - Sinovel Wind Group and Xinjiang GoldWind Science & Technology in particular - whose market shares have been on a steady ascent in the past years. That these market positions might change in the future cannot be ignored, however. Both Sinovel and GoldWind’s net income fell in the first quarter of this year, owing from a decelerating Chinese wind power sector and an aggressive domestic price competition.  While one can argue that there are still technological discrepancies between Asian and Western turbine manufacturers, Vestas’ problems with its gearboxes on the V90-3.0 MW turbines did little to help its case. In the current situation of rising raw material prices, high turbine inventories and fierce price wars, it is in the interest of turbine manufacturers to keep their costs as low as possible to preserve their margins.

With a cumulative installed capacity of 3.5 GW, the offshore wind power market accounted for 1.5 per cent of the total wind power market in 2011. With large scale commercial offshore wind farms currently under construction and in the planning phase, offshore wind power capacity is expected to reach 52.1 GW in 2020 by growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 35.1 per cent from 2011, and will contribute 7.1 per cent of the total wind power market by 2020.

Whilst wind turbine companies could seek refuge from the prospects in the offshore wind power sector, growth in this market is tempered by poor market conditions, lack of an offshore grid and difficulties in accessing credit. Uncertainties in the regulatory and economic climate are the prime reasons why both Nordex and Doosan Power Systems pulled the plug from its offshore wind power business. This sentiment is also echoed by Gamesa who with its partner Newport News Shipbuilding, halted plans to install its 5MW prototype turbine in the US.

In addition, there is stiff competition from incumbent players who are armed with sufficient financial and operational muscle to invest in Research & Development (R&D), as proven technology is increasingly becoming an important selling proposition to thrive in the offshore wind power business. Mitsubishi Power Systems Europe, Samsung Heavy Industries and Ming Yang are a few of those companies who are investing in its offshore wind power technology development.

Whether the Production Tax Credit (PTC), a 30 per cent investment tax credit available to a number of renewable energy plants in the US, will be extended is another hurdle for offshore wind turbine manufacturers. If indeed this is not renewed at the end of this year, Vestas for instance would need to cut a chunk of its US workforce that will hamper its ability to turnaround its performance and bring back investor confidence. In a similar vein, US offshore wind plant developers will likely find it difficult to find financing for its projects if the PTC is not extended.

Jennifer Santos is GlobalData’s Head of Energy Consulting Services.

Photograph: Getty Images

Jennifer Santos is GlobalData’s Head of Energy Consulting Services.

Getty
Show Hide image

The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.