A wind turbine swirls over a strip of land at the mouth of the port of Rotterdam, which is so large that it is difficult to photograph. The turning diameter of its rotor is longer than two American football fields. Later models will be taller than any building in mainland Western Europe.
The giant whirling machine in the Netherlands is a test model for a new series of giant offshore wind turbines designed by General Electric. It contains sensors for wind speeds, power output and loads on their components. Mounted in arrays, the wind machines have the potential to supply cities with electricity and replace the emission-generating coal or natural gas systems that form the backbone of many electrical systems today.
GE has not yet installed any of these machines in seawater. As a relative newcomer to the offshore wind business, the company is faced with questions about how quickly and efficiently it can scale production to build and install hundreds of turbines.
But the giant turbines have already caused a sensation in the industry. A top manager at the world’s leading wind farm developer called it a “little leap over the latest technology”. And one analyst said the machine’s size and pre-sale “rocked the industry.”
The prototype is the first of a generation of new machines that are about a third more powerful than the largest already in commercial operation. As such, it changes the business calculations of wind turbine manufacturers, developers and investors.
The GE machines will have generating capacity that would have been hard to imagine a decade ago. A single one will be able to deliver 13 megawatts of power, enough to light up a city with around 12,000 houses.
The turbine can generate as much thrust as the four engines of a Boeing 747 jet. According to GE, it is used at sea, where developers have learned they can plant larger and more numerous turbines than on land to catch stronger breezes and be more reliable.
The race to build larger turbines has developed faster than many industry figures had predicted. GE’s Haliade-X generates almost 30 times more electricity than the first offshore machines installed offshore Denmark in 1991.
In the years to come, customers are likely to demand even larger machines, say industry leaders. On the other hand, they predict that just like airliners peaked with the Airbus A380, they predict that turbines will reach a point where larger sizes no longer make economic sense.
“We will also reach a plateau. We just don’t know where it is yet, ”said Morten Pilgaard Rasmussen, Chief Technology Officer for offshore wind turbines at Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy, the leading manufacturer of offshore turbines.
Although offshore turbines only make up about 5 percent of the generation capacity of the entire wind industry, this part of the business has taken on its own identity and is expected to grow faster than land wind in the coming years.
Offshore technology has made its way into northern Europe for the past three decades and is now spreading to the east coast of the US as well as Asia, including Taiwan, China and South Korea. The large projects, which cost billions of dollars and are possible at sea, attract large investors, including oil companies like BP and Royal Dutch Shell, who want to quickly upgrade their green energy supply. Capital investments in offshore wind turbines have more than tripled to $ 26 billion in the past decade, according to the Paris-based forecasting group International Energy Agency.
GE began its entry into wind power in 2002 when it bought Enron’s land-based turbine business at a bankruptcy auction – a successful unit in a company embroiled in a spectacular accounting scandal. It was a marginal force in the offshore industry when its executives decided to crack it about four years ago. They saw a growing market with only a few serious Western competitors.
However, GE executives felt they had to be brave to become leaders in the challenging marine environment. They have more than doubled the size of their existing offshore machine, which GE received by acquiring Alstom’s electricity business in France in 2015. The aim was to gain an edge over important competitors such as Siemens Gamesa and Vestas Wind Systems, a Danish turbine manufacturer.
A larger turbine produces more electricity and therefore more sales than a smaller machine. The size also helps reduce the cost of building and maintaining a wind farm, as fewer turbines are required to generate a given amount of electricity.
These characteristics create a strong incentive for developers to choose the largest machine available to aid in their efforts to win the auctions for offshore power agreements that many countries have accepted. These auctions vary in format, but developers compete to provide power at the lowest price for several years.
“What they are looking for is a turbine that will win these auctions,” said Vincent Schellings, who led the design and production of the GE turbine. “The turbine size plays a very important role here.”
Early customers include Orsted, a Danish company that is the world’s largest developer of offshore wind farms. A tentative agreement was reached to purchase approximately 90 of the Haliade-X machines for a project called Ocean Wind off Atlantic City, NJ
“I think they surprised everyone when they came out with this machine,” said David Hardy, director of Orsted’s North American offshore business.
As a major buyer of turbines, Orsted wants to help “build this new platform and create some volume for GE” to encourage competition and innovation, Hardy said.
According to analysts, the GE turbine is selling better than its competitors expected.
On December 1st, GE signed another preliminary agreement to supply turbines for Vineyard Wind, a large wind farm off Massachusetts, and delivered 276 turbines for what is probably the largest wind farm in the world at Dogger Bank in the UK.
These deals with accompanying maintenance contracts could add up to $ 13 billion, estimates Shashi Barla, lead wind analyst at Wood Mackenzie, a market research firm.
The waves of the GE machine prompted Siemens Gamesa to announce a number of competing turbines. Vestas, which until recently had the largest machine in the industry in its stall, is expected to introduce a new entry soon.
“We weren’t the first to move and of course we have to address that today,” said Henrik Andersen, Vestas Managing Director.
GE had to “pretty much start over,” Schellings said. The GE Renewable Energy business unit spends approximately $ 400 million on design, engineering, and conversion factories in St. Nazaire and Cherbourg, France.
To make a blade of such extraordinary length that it would not buckle under its own weight, GE challenged designers at LM Wind Power, a blade manufacturer in Denmark that the company bought in 2016 for $ 1.7 billion. Their innovations include a material made of carbon fiber and glass fiber that is light, yet strong and flexible.
GE has yet to figure out how to efficiently manufacture large numbers of the machines, first at its plants in France and possibly later in the UK and USA. With a tight offshore track record, GE must also demonstrate that it can reliably install and maintain the large machines at sea with special ships and in inclement weather.
“GE has a lot to prove to asset owners in order to source GE turbines,” said Barla.
For Siemens Gamesa, GE’s main competitor, it was easier and cheaper to bring out bigger machines. In its offshore complex in Brande on the Danish peninsula Jutland, GE is already building a prototype for a new and more powerful machine. The secret: The company’s ever-larger new models have not strayed far from a ten-year-old original.
“The fundamentals of the machine and how it works remain unchanged,” said Rasmussen, unit chief technology officer, resulting in a “slightly better starting point” than GE’s.
There seems to be a lot of room for competition. John Lavelle, executive director of GE’s offshore business, said the prospect for the market was “getting bigger every year.”