With the short to medium term outlook for the power generation market, and most other markets for that matter, looking decidedly bleak, even the wind energy sector is lowering its forecasts. The American Wind Energy Association has, for example, cut its projection for installed wind turbine capacity in 2002 “due to postponement of projects and lower gas prices,” it says. Nevertheless it could be argued that the renewables business has slightly more reason to be cheerful than some other sectors of the power market just now.

As mentioned in this month’s news, GE announced plans to eliminate 2500 jobs over the next nine months (with further reductions expected in late 2003) in response to reduced demand for power generation equipment such as gas turbines. But the company was also able to report that it is starting to produce a new product line at its Pensacola facility: wind turbine blades. “The wind power industry offers tremendous opportunities for growth and continued technology development”, GE believes.

Bearing this out in the US context, the US Army Corps of Engineers has taken preliminary steps towards the development of what is claimed to be the USA’s first offshore wind farm, 400 MW off Cape Cod, and the Long Island Power Authority is preparing a request for proposals for a 100 MW offshore wind farm. This is in the wake of a recent study suggesting that there is scope for no less than 5200 MW of wind generation capacity off the coast of Long Island. Meanwhile, California has adopted a law requiring that 20 per cent of the state’s electricity be renewable by 2017 and legislation setting out targets for other states is either enacted or imminent.

The renewables are also gathering ever increasing political momentum in Europe. For example, the German reddish-green coalition has hung on to power – albeit only just – with the green component much invigorated, giving a strengthened mandate for the coalition’s already extremely ambitious plans for renewables. As reported elsewhere in this issue, Germany’s installed wind capacity, as of August 2002, was nudging the 10 000 MWe mark. It still only meets around 3.5 per cent of the country’s total electricity demand, but nevertheless thisis a remarkable achievement considering that the country’s installed wind generation capacity in 1990 was essentially zero. The German government’s current plans envisage around 25 GW of offshore wind capacity by 2030 – accounting for 15 per cent of total capacity – but there has been talk of aiming much higher.

Then there is the so-called “Plan of Implementation” arising from the recent Johannesburg jamboree on sustainable development. This says that it is necessary to “substantially increase the global share of renewable energy sources” and that this must be done “with a sense of urgency.” Some within the renewables community felt disappointed that the summit studiously avoided setting out any precise goals or timetables, as had been urged by the EU, which has established what it calls “indicative targets” for its member states. The Plan of Implementation merely says that the contribution of renewables to total energy supply should be increased, “recognising the role of national and voluntary regional targets as well as initiatives, where they exist.” This seems fair enough, as there would have been little point in the Johannesburg summit trying to second-guess existing targets for individual countries, and extremely difficult for it to work out reasonable targets for countries that have not yet adopted any.

Indeed, when it comes to determining what the appropriate level of contribution from renewables should be for a given country there are no clear answers.

A recent report from the UK Royal Academy of Engineering, for example, argues that a target of 20 per cent renewables in the UK by 2020 is overoptimistic because it fails to address their intermittent nature. The report claims that “experience on the content, especially in Denmark, has shown that grid stability can be adversely affected when the penetration of intermittent renewables reaches about 15 per cent.” In fact, when the two Danish 160 MW offshore wind farms, Horns Rev and Rodsand – themselves significant milestones in the development of renewables – enter operation, later this year and in 2003 respectively, the proportion of wind power on the Danish system will be over 21 per cent. The Danes are confident they can cope, being able to use interconnections with Norway, Sweden and Germany, for example, to make up shortfalls or export surpluses (a particular problem in January when Danish wind turbines have had to be shut down due to over-production). But the way the Danes manage their grid to accommodate this fickle but major contribution should provide important lessons for other countries contemplating similarly ambitious targets for renewables.

Hydrogen boom?

DTE Energy has announced that it is to partner the US DoE in the “first-ever, hydrogen power park project”. The park will demonstrate all the basic elements of the much debated “hydrogen economy” in an integrated way, including: electrolysis of water (with the electricity coming from renewables, of course); hydrogen compression, storage and transmission; and use of the hydrogen to generate electricity in a fuel cell (from Plug Power) and a Stirling engine or advanced reciprocating engine. Meanwhile, Ballard and Ford have launched what they claim to be the world’s first hydrogen-fuelled IC engine driven genset.

These are just a couple of recent indications of growing interest in the future possibilities for hydrogen within the power generation sector, as well as a future transport fuel.

The potential for the use of emissions-free nuclear generated electricity for electrolysis in a future hydrogen-based energy system is of course not lost on the nuclear industry, with the topic receiving much attention at this year’s World Nuclear Association gathering, and perhaps helping to take the industry’s mind off the TEPCO debacle and British Energy’s financial melt-down.

Further indications of burgeoning interest in hydrogen come from the organisers of a forthcoming event, Hydro Expo, to be held in Hamburg, 10-12 October. They say they are expecting 7000 attendees.