Technology Partnerships Boost Nascent Wind Power Industry

By working with local universities and overseas component suppliers, manufacturers aim to produce more affordable turbines that are 15 to 20 percent more efficient in generating electricity.

The wind power industry in China is blowing up a storm.

From just six wind turbine manufacturers in 2004, the China Wind Power Association estimates the country is now home to more than 70 companies. This represents at least 17 times growth in just six years.

Output is multiplying swiftly as well. Statistics from China Wind Power Material Equipment Network show 124 percent year-on-year growth in 2009 production to 10,129 wind turbines generating a total of 13,803.2MW.

This, in turn, is promoting development in the auxiliary industries such as blades, converters, pitch control systems and inverters.

To make a mark in the export sector, China’s wind turbine manufacturers are now investing in technology, certification and aftersales service upgrades. The majority of companies only started catering to overseas markets during the past two or three years. In 2009, only four suppliers shipped out wind turbines internationally. These are Sinovel, Goldwind, Shanghai Electric and Changzhou New United. Sinovel exported 10 units to India. Goldwind sent three wind turbines to the US, while Shanghai Electric shipped two to Thailand. Changzhou New United manufactured one each for Thailand and the US.

At present, most locally made wind turbines cannot handle speeds that are too slow or too fast. The Chinese Wind Energy Association said a 1.5MW generator typically requires wind speed of at least 3 meters per second to start and 12.5 meters per second to generate electricity. But at 25 meters per second, the turbines need to stop working because the electricity generated would be too much for the transformers to handle.

Because of this limitation, suppliers focusing on large-capacity wind turbines are working with local universities in developing new technologies that can help improve stability and performance. The Shandong Changxing Group is cooperating with the Shaanxi University of Science and Technology to produce high-speed synchronous generators with a brushless excitation system. Unlike the traditionally incorporated doubly-fed asynchronous generators and permanent magnet direct-drive systems, the newer technology can convert electricity even in extreme wind conditions. Shandong Changxing is said to be the first in China to use such advanced systems, which can generate 15 to 20 percent more electricity than wind turbines adopting other technologies.

New United Group Co. Ltd works not only with the Shenyang Industrial University to develop 1.5MV wind turbines, but also with Germany’s Euros, UK’s GH and France’s Alstom to produce key components such as blades, controllers and converters. Using information shared from this technology partnership, the company initiates another round of R&D to develop parts in-house.

Some component suppliers, on the other hand, were set up by technology institutes themselves. Beijing Corona Science & Technology Co. Ltd was set up by the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Electrical Engineering. With the institute’s focus on high-tech R&D, Beijing Corona is able to offer converters, pitch control systems and inverters for both wind and solar-powered products.

Wind turbines made more affordable

Advancements in technology coupled with China’s relatively low labor costs are pushing down prices of wind turbines. Guangzhou Hongying Energy Co. Ltd, which exports kW-rated capacity wind turbines to North America, said small China-made units are 100 to 200 percent less expensive than overseas variants, while larger models are priced 20 percent lower.

From about 6 million yuan ($885,000) per megawatt at the start of 2009, quotes fell to below 5 million yuan ($737,000) in H1 2010. Global prices are falling, but not fast enough to meet China’s low rates. From a high of 1.22 million euros ($1.6 million) per megawatt in 2009, prices are projected to fall to about 1.04 million euros ($1.4 million) by 2011.

The swift decline in quotes for China-made wind turbines is attributed in part to the way some small manufacturers offer really low prices, often at the expense of quality.

But larger, more research-oriented companies are less inclined to reduce quotes to finalize a transaction. Among these is Shandong Changxing, which believes engaging in price competition at such an early stage is not a move in the right direction.

Other improvements

Apart from investing in technology, companies such as New United are bringing in professional testing equipment to ensure the quality of its turbines. The company now has blade, 3MW land drag and 3.8MW land grid-connection testing platforms in addition to an EMC laboratory.

Apart from these, New United carries out various tests on turbine performance under different weather conditions, including low temperatures and high air salinity. The units are subjected to a shipping simulation assessment to evaluate how well the sealed film packaging holds up against sea travel. Burn-in tests are carried out as well.

Likewise, Shandong Changxing carries out land inspection to check resistance to moisture and corrosion, and evaluate suitability for sea and land use.

By improving the technology, manufacturers also aim to speed up turnaround in acquiring export certification such as being able to carry the CE mark or be UL-listed. Since the industry is still in its nascent stage, certification is usually per component and not for the entire turbine. Depending on the part and type of turbine, the process can take three to more than five months.

The lengthy turnaround sometimes causes problems in meeting delivery schedules. Companies would often have to negotiate lead times with buyers. In fact, a few manufacturers said they are unable to ship out some of the orders placed last year because the export certification is still not ready.

Presently, China-made wind turbines are exported to the US, the EU and Southeast Asia.

Aftersales service is being enhanced as well. Apart from sending engineers to guide buyers during on-site installations, suppliers are providing bilingual technical blueprints with metric and imperial measurements, and operating and maintenance manuals.

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