What is the current outlook for the wind power industry?
Wind power has become the most affordable and versatile form of renewable energy, and has reached vastly diversified sites, from agricultural land to mountains, from sea to desert, from single units to gigawatt plants, from industrialised to developing countries around the globe. More than 51GW were installed in 2014 to reach 370GW in total, China having installed almost half of the new global capacity, followed by Europe with a quarter, and North America with almost a sixth. The growth has been sharp and steady over the last 15 years, and should carry on, with new dynamic areas in emerging markets such as China, Brazil, Turkey and Chile compensating for phases of regional slowdowns such as in many European countries (for example, Spain, France and Italy) due to a change of regulatory framework.
What technological innovations will transform both the installation and the physical form of wind turbines?
The transformation of the installed turbine has been related more to scale rather than to the form itself, at least in power-plant scale facilities: hybrid towers (see below) higher than 160m; blades longer than 80m thanks to new profiles, materials and moulding technologies; generators able to produce more than 8MW per unit. Nevertheless an increasing number of segments have appeared to deliver solutions with a specific blend of the core features matching special requirements such as complex topography, low or turbulent wind resource, limited accessibility, far sea, and specific regulatory or technical frameworks. In the future, the diversity of the available machines will further increase, the bar being raised in terms of size for sites that require it. The deepest physical transformation is perhaps to be seen under water, as the support structure (between the turbine and the foundation in the sea belt) is a major area of innovation and technical breakthrough, with a panel of currently available solutions ranging from monopole to tripod, lattice, gravity, and floating structures being in development.
New logistical concepts are being developed to bring ever larger turbines to increasingly difficult sites e.g. in mountains or at sea. Hybrid concrete and steel towers, typically for hub height greater than 100 meters, enable the transportation of heavy steel sheets for the upper part of the tower only, while having the bulky tower base locally produced in concrete. In offshore sites, much is done in the harbour to avoid difficult and risky works at sea. In mountains, on the contrary, parts are brought by new, smaller and more agile trucks and assembled on site. New cranes enable us to build higher, faster, and in a more mobile fashion in order to be ready sooner for the next turbine.
How will the wind power industry evolve to overcome financial obstacles and the issue of unpredictability and intermittence in power supply?
The goal of the industry is to achieve sustainability with as little financial and regulatory support as possible. This depends on the design of the power market, decided by the regulator and government of each country, pushing wind power in or out, depending on whether it honours the availability of power or the production of energy.
The integration of wind power into the current energy-driven market designs requires a power production that would be dispatchable in reasonably predictable volumes convenient for consumption and trading (like conventional power plants). Amongst the various options explored to achieve this goal, the bundling of several facilities of various technologies into virtual power plants (the flexible facilities such as hydro or biomass plants smoothening the less actionable wind power curve) and the addition of energy storage systems combined with smart grid integration, are the most promising.
What is the position of wind power in the future global energy market compared to alternative renewable energy sources?
The advantages of wind power (e.g. high installed power with reduced land use, price) make this technology very versatile and compatible with the current land use of a large number of areas close to energy needs around the planet. It will continue to play a dominant role in terms of new installed capacity, and even more in terms of produced energy. According to EIA, wind power should surpass hydro power within 25 years in terms of installed capacity, becoming the first source of clean power in the world. Solar power should grow at a higher rate but starts from a much smaller base.