No. 4, 2012
WINDS OF CHANGE
Oil of Russia magazine talks to Stefan Gsaenger, Secretary General of World Wind Energy Association
Wind energy is one of the most progressive sectors of the global energy industry. Increasing prices for fossil energy, the pressing necessity to mitigate the climate change and the growing cost-effectiveness of wind turbines make the long-term prospects for further development of this industry bright. Nowadays, wind energy has reached a competitive level with fossil fuels in many countries, and in some states it has become a corner stone of electricity generation.
Q: Mr. Gsaenger, what kind of work does the WWEA do to promote the advancement of green energy?
A: WWEA is a non-profit organization with members in more than 100 countries, all over the world. Our main objective is a global energy supply system that is based on renewable energy, with wind energy as a key component. Hence we promote the utilization of wind power globally. We do this by enhancing exchange of experience and information within the wind sector, by enhancing technology transfer and of course by advising governments and international organizations.
Some of our major success stories are the adoption of the first Chinese renewable energy law in 2005, shortly after our World Wind Energy Conference in Beijing, the first North American feed-in legislation in North America, which the Canadian province Ontario introduced after our WWEC 2008, and the creation of the International Renewable Energy Agency IRENA.
In the future we will continue to work on the creation of new markets, and in this sense our focus will be on countries like Russia who have not yet started wind energy utilization in spite of huge potentials.
Q: What is the current share of wind energy in the global green energy industry? How large is global installed wind energy capacity according to WWEA's statistics?
A: Worldwide, the capacity of installed wind farms has now crossed 250,000 MW, enough to cover around 3% of the global electricity demand. Some countries have already reached shares of 10% like Germany, or 20% and more, like Portugal, Spain or Denmark. Amongst the "new" renewables, wind energy has by far the highest share. Of course countries without major fossil resources have started to introduce wind power on a large scale, however, in the meantime we can also see a huge interest in some of the big oil producing countries, including the countries in the Middle East like Saudi Arabia, or Canada.
In some parts of the world, not only in Denmark and in the North of Germany, the wind industry has already become a key pillar of the industry in general, one of the largest taxpayers as well as employers. We estimate that the wind industry worldwide employs today more than half a million people, and that by the middle of this decade it will be around one million clean jobs.
Q: How competitive is wind energy commercially comparing it to major conventional and alternative energy resources these days? Do you expect some changes here in the foreseeable future?
A: Today, when we compare new investment, wind energy is already one of the cheapest forms of electricity generation. At recent auctions in Brazil, wind power was able to beat all other forms of electricity generation, including of course nuclear power, but even gas and hydropower. And the prospects are even brighter - it can be expected that the costs for wind power will go down further while the prices of fossil fuels will increase.
Hence in the long term we can expect that wind power will be the baseload power, delivering electricity at unbeatable cost. Other sources will be used when there is no wind blowing.
This cost advantage of wind power becomes even more obvious when we take into account the external effects of burning fossil fuels like climate change or the damages that are caused by nuclear power, like two decades ago in Chernobyl or last year in Fukushima.
Q: What countries are most advanced today in the sphere of wind energy?
A: In terms of total installed capacity, China is leading the world today with around 70,000 MW of total capacity installed in the country. The USA are number two, followed by Germany, Spain, and India. These five countries are still representing the major share of wind power capacity, although new markets are showing fast growth, especially in Eastern Europe as well as in Latin America. In terms of share of wind power in the electricity supply, Denmark is number one, with now almost one quarter of its electricity coming from wind, followed by Portugal and Spain, where wind contributes almost one fifth. In Germany as one of the largest industrialized countries, wind power generates currently 10% of the country's electricity.
Q: And what countries or regions do you believe to be especially perspective from the standpoint of their untapped wind energy capacity? What do you think about Russia's wind energy potential?
A: Russia, without doubt, has by far the world's largest wind potential - and is at the same time the country that has so far practically not made use of this huge resource.
We have recently published a report on the status of wind power in all CIS countries. Unfortunately, the main conclusion is that the region is quite far behind the rest of the world, with a total capacity of only a bit more than 200 MW, most of which has been installed in the Ukraine. This represents less than 0.1% of the world wind capacity.
The main reason is probably that decision-makers in these countries have not yet understood the need to invest in such new technologies, as many of them are blessed with fossil resources. However, the renewable energy potentials, be it wind power, solar energy, bioenergy, hydropower or geothermal energy, are much higher than the fossil resources, and they will never deplete - especially Russia should take this into account, if it wants to secure its position as an energy exporter in the long term. It is very important to understand that renewable energy is land-based and that their potential is generally speaking directly related to the available land mass. This alone tells us that Russia must be blessed with wind power and other renewable resources. I am also sure that the current wind potential assessments are by far underestimating the wind resources of Russia.
A wise and long-term energy strategy would certainly focus on wind power and other renewable energies and gradually decrease the reliance on fossil resources. In the long-term, the CIS countries may even become exporters of renewable energy, to its Western as well as to its Eastern neighbors.
Q: Rare earth metals are among essential components of building wind turbines. Today, China almost has almost a "monopoly" in production of these metals. Is this a serious obstacle for the wind energy industry development?
A: Firstly, not all wind turbines need such material - most wind turbines available today on the market do not need rare earth metals in large quantities. Of course there is a rather new generation of generators entering the market which would require a substantially larger amount, as they use permanent magnets. However, the general fate of our industry does not only rely on this, as there are several alternative options. And in the mid-term, it can be expected that the rare earth supply will become less limited, as several countries have started to develop their rare earth resources. Russia can certainly play an important role in this as well. The main materials for wind turbines anyway are steel and copper - hence an increase in steel or copper prices, like a couple of years ago, may indeed have a detrimental impact on the wind turbine industry. Although also here the industry has developed alternative options: turbine towers don't need to be made from steel, but can be made from concrete, and one company even offers wooden towers.
Q: Some opponents of wind energy assert that wind turbines have their environmental drawbacks like noise pollution and danger for birds, bats and even to sea fauna (in case of offshore construction). How would you comment on this?
A: The negative environmental impacts of wind turbines are very small, especially when compared with fossil or nuclear power generation. Once people have ever visited a wind farm, they understand immediately that noise is not really a problem - every highway is much louder. Negative impacts on birds or bats can be avoided by proper planning and siting of the specific project. And a wind farm can be decommissioned after its lifetime without leaving major ecological burdens, even the tower foundation can removed and the place can practically be completely restored.
Q: How do you assess near-term and long term prospects for the global wind energy industry?
A: The long-term prospects for wind power are excellent. On the one hand, we can expect increasing prices for fossil energy sources, as well as an increasing need to mitigate climate change and other environmental pollution. On the other hand, wind energy will become even more cost-effective, and the wind potentials are huge all over the world.
Of course, at the moment the manufacturing industry is in a consolidation phase. There is an increasing competition on the market for wind turbines, and new competitors e.g. from China have entered the global wind markets. However, in a couple of years this consolidation will have led to an even stronger wind industry, and still new players will come up, in world regions such as Africa, Latin America and hopefully one day also in Russia.