Betting on Siemens with Offshore Wind

A late comer to the wind turbine manufacturing industry, Siemens AG entered the wind business six years ago when it purchased the veteran Danish wind turbine manufacturer Bonus Energy. Europe’s largest engineering firm, Siemens is also one of the world’s primary suppliers of transmission infrastructure equipment. In 2010, the company’s 3 and 3.6 MW wind turbines emerged as the top choice for offshore wind projects. Currently ranked 6th in the world in terms of total wind turbine sales, Siemens is expected to creep up to among the top three wind turbine suppliers by the end of 2012. While other turbines have reported weak sales over the past year, Siemens is showing strong sales in both onshore and offshore wind arenas.

At present, the company’s turbines account for 77 percent of the installed and under development offshore wind projects in the United Kingdom, the market expected to lead the world over the next ten years, with as much as 30 to 50 GW over the next ten to 15 years. The company is also making major inroads in the United States, having been chosen to supply 130 3.6 MW turbines for the high profile Cape Wind project off of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

The key differentiator for Siemens is a variable frequency direct drive permanent magnet generator developed by Converteam, an engineering outfit whose wind turbine products are used by a variety of other firms and are featured in an accumulative worldwide capacity of 15 GW. (Unlike an electrically excited machine with a gearbox, a permanent magnet excited machine does not expend any energy on the excitation.) With half the parts of a conventional geared turbine, the Siemens machine has been deemed a “game changer” by insiders. The compact design allows for cost effective transportation on standard vehicles within most markets.

Of the five key components in a wind turbine – the blade, rotor hub, nacelle, tower, and controller – all but the components within the nacelle are adopted from the existing Siemens’ wind turbine portfolio. By utilizing proven components, Siemens has endeavored to eliminate many of the variables traditionally associated with the introduction of new products. This is a key comfort to investors looking to rely on proven technology when reviewing offshore wind turbine options.

One reason I’m betting on Siemens has nothing to do with its wind turbine technology. Instead, it is the company’s role in developing high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines. True, the company did not develop the first HVDC system for offshore wind – that honor went to ABB with a project in Germany. But the company has developed some unique DC power converters and other systems that may give the firm a competitive advantage. And it has formed a partnership with Mainstream Renewable Power, the world’s leading offshore wind developer, to help develop Phase 1 of the “Super Grid” designed to bring offshore wind developed in the North Sea to various European markets.

The reason why there is much greater interest in HVDC today is due to the following developments:

– Advances in power electronics originating within the industrial sector (electric drives, process plants and mass transit traction systems) have now been adapted to the so-called electricity Transmission and Distribution (T&D) industry.

– Some of the same kinds of power electronics innovations occurring with PCs, iPods, and other consumer gadgets have also occurred within larger industrial systems. More specifically, computers and software systems that create algorithms that enable real-time decision-making literally within nanoseconds are now infiltrating modern power grids.

– AC transmission systems suffer so-called “line losses” that can range from 10 to 15 percent. HVDC line losses are closer to just 2 percent.

– HVDC systems are 100 percent controllable – the power will only go where you want it to go – whereas AC systems flow sometimes in unpredictable ways, an attribute that contributes to rolling blackouts or brownouts. In this way, HVDC systems can act like firewalls, limiting grid disturbances to a small geographical area.

Given its leading market presence in selling HVDC, Siemens is now looking to expand its offshore wind products and services by buying infrastructure firms and looking to invest in installation equipment, including, perhaps, vessels.

They will never be the only game in town. Other promising wind turbine designs will be tested over the next five years that could also be game changers, among them a 10 MW design by Clipper Wind and a 6 MW two-bladed downwind turbine from 2-B Energy. For now, though, Siemens is well positioned in both Europe and the U.S. for offshore wind and transmission build-out opportunities.

Article by Peter Asmus

Photo by Siemens

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