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The Future in Focus

LRQA Podcast: Why wind energy matters

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08 FEBRUARY 2023 15:00 15 MINUTES

On today’s episode of Future in Focus we sit down with Dr. Hendrik Lau, LRQA's leading wind energy expert. Discover the growing importance of wind energy, its crucial role in achieving net zero goals, and the hurdles faced by developers in this rapidly growing industry.


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LRQA: The Future in Focus

Why is wind so important as a renewable energy source?

The importance of wind energy as a renewable energy source cannot be overstated. It is a clean, sustainable, and abundant source of electricity, making it a crucial tool in the fight against climate change.

One of the key benefits of renewable energy sources such as wind is their decentralized nature. Unlike traditional fossil fuel installations, which require large and isolated power plants, renewable energy infrastructure can be built on a smaller scale, such as onshore and offshore wind farms and solar panel installations on top of buildings.

Additionally, wind power is available all around the world, which means that it is not limited by geographical location and can be harnessed virtually anywhere. It is also a zero-emission source of electricity, producing no harmful greenhouse gases or pollutants during its operation.

As climate change continues to be one of the most pressing issues we face today, many countries, such as the UK, are committing to ambitious net-zero targets. To achieve these targets, we must scale up our ability to generate electricity from wind power; it is not only vital for meeting our energy needs today but also for ensuring a sustainable future for generations to come.

What kind of growth are we seeing in wind energy and the development of new installations? 

The wind energy industry is experiencing tremendous growth. The numbers speak for themselves, the compound annual growth rate of wind power generation is around 30%, and it continues to rise, and new onshore installations have reached record numbers in regions such as Europe, Latin America, and Africa & the Middle East. Additionally, 557 gigawatts of new capacity is expected to be added in the next five years.

While these numbers are impressive, to truly make a meaningful impact in the fight against climate change, the growth in this sector must significantly accelerate, and even quadruple, in the coming decade. To achieve net zero by 2050 and for countries like the UK and Germany to meet their ambitious climate goals, the wind energy industry must continue to experience this kind of growth.

What challenges do developers face when planning and building new wind energy facilities?

When it comes to planning and building new wind energy facilities, developers are facing a number of challenges. The first and most significant challenge is the cost. Developing wind energy projects, whether onshore or offshore, requires a significant amount of funding. Despite receiving government funding in most European countries, the availability and reliability of this funding can be uncertain and subject to political changes.

Another major challenge is the supply chain. With high demand for wind energy projects, developers are facing difficulties in building and managing new supply chains and auditing new suppliers. Additionally, there are concerns about the current supply chain capacity to meet the growing demand for wind energy. It's projected that by 2030, around 380 gigawatts of new wind power will have been installed globally, which roughly translates to 190 to 200 new wind farms.

Climate change is also a challenge, especially in northern Europe where there are more drastic changes in weather like rougher, higher winds and record-breaking temperatures. These conditions will have an impact on wind farms over time, potentially reducing their lifetime – as a result developers are trying to factor in future weather patterns into their builds, which is an almost impossible task.

As renewables - and wind energy - continue to experience significant growth, how important is it for organisations to access the right technical expertise?

Accessing the right technical expertise is a vital requirement for the success of any wind energy project.

Current wind energy projects all have the same goals: high performance, high output and high efficiency. This naturally leads to the need for re-engineering windmill designs with new materials, steel structures, longer blades, and higher statures. And these new designs can not be run in the same way as older ones. It is crucial to rethink, redesign, and recertify everything.

But expertise is not just a factor on a hardware and engineering level, it is an end-to-end requirement. Take certification as an example. Every aspect of a wind farm, from the raw materials to the equipment and final turbines, must be audited and certified to a set of standards. This ensures safety, compliance, and quality.

In Germany, for instance, equipment used in wind farm development currently requires four certificates. There are plans to reduce this to a single certificate in the future, which is great because it will help to speed up processes. However, it may also increase risk as there will be fewer auditors checking the process. This highlights the importance of getting things right the first time, and why accessing the right technical expertise is so critical.

When considering a typical wind energy project - what is the role of the supply chain, and why is it so important?

Wind energy projects are designed to be as efficient as possible, and the sooner they are connected to the grid, the better the results will be. However, this means that every wind energy project must be meticulously planned and managed for cost, time, and quality. Most wind projects rely on extensive global supply chains for specialist knowledge, equipment, and services, but managing multiple suppliers across different locations can introduce risks. For example, risks related to quality management or contractual requirements.

Furthermore, if there are fewer certification requirements in the future, the potential for firms to enter the supply chain with lower-quality materials, products, and services will grow. To protect against this, Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) companies need to implement robust supplier audit programs and quality assurance processes. This will add to the workloads of EPCs, so it's important to work with the right technical experts to build effective supply chain assurance programs that mitigate risk through measures such as supplier audits, site inspections and supervision.

Each project and individual asset generates its own risk profile, as does each supplier. To truly optimize the performance of equipment and facilities, best practices must be implemented and followed by all parties at every stage throughout the lifecycle of a facility. This typically requires specialist expertise and knowledge of relevant laws, regulations and international standards.

What is the typical lifetime of an onshore or offshore wind energy facility? How can organisations extend the life of their assets and optimise operational performance?

Wind energy facilities are engineered for a lifespan of 20 to 25 years. To ensure that this lifespan is met, regular servicing and inspections are crucial. While it is possible to extend the life of these assets, it can be a challenge and is not as common as in other industries such as automotive or aerospace where this is a standard operating procedure.

We are seeing a growing market demand for risk-based inspections, where companies like LRQA inspect assets against a range of different criteria, which in some circumstances, could lead to the extension of an asset's lifetime. For example, on a typical offshore wind farm, there are steel structures such as windmill jackets that are in contact with saltwater. These jackets have a corrosion allowance of about three millimeters. If the corrosion allowance of these steel jackets is found to be below its predicted corrosion level, then there is no reason why the asset's life cannot be extended.

The same applies to windmill blades. Over time, vibrations can cause cracking, but if these cracks are found to be at an acceptable width, then the asset's life can be extended.

By having assets regularly serviced and inspected, especially when they are approaching the latter years of their expected operational lives, organizations can extend the life of their assets and improve their operational performance.

What does the future of Wind energy look like?

The future of wind energy looks incredibly promising. As we continue to strive for greater efficiency and higher performance, we will see the development of larger and taller wind turbines that can harness more wind power. Right now, wind turbines generate around 15 megawatts of energy, but in China, we are already seeing turbines that can generate 20 megawatts. It is also likely that in the near future, we will see turbines capable of generating 30 megawatts or more.

We’re also likely to see changes to offshore wind farms which are currently anchored to the seabed, with a maximum depth of around 50 meters. To overcome this limitation, we are starting to see the emergence of floating wind installations in coastal areas where there isn't enough flat seabed for traditional fixed installations. Floating platforms have already been developed, which are much easier to maintain and less affected by adverse weather conditions. They are also able to be physically moved which provides more flexibility.

In short, the future of wind energy is exciting, and it is clear that there are many opportunities and potential advancements to come.