Circular economy

Blowing Hot and Cold

By Denisse Cepeda (Cinco Días Madrid) | Updated on January 08, 2018

Urban Windmill Andrew Pick

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After years of strong growth, the Spanish market for small wind turbines is in the doldrums, stalled by declining government support and kilometers of red tape. Technological innovation is one way to get things moving again.

Imagine you’re on vacation in Madrid and your cell phone battery dies while you are out seeing the sights. Not to worry, throughout the city, there are small wind turbines about two meters high and similar to portable fans that serve as handy recharging stations. This scenario is not yet a reality, but it could be if the Spanish market for small wind turbines gets moving again. The technology already exists.

“The potential for small wind turbines is enormous,” said Juan de Dios Bornay, CEO of the Alicante-based company Bornay, a pioneer in harnessing wind power since 1970. The company produces 800 small turbines annually; its various models (600 - 6,000 watts) are designed for homes that are not connected to an electricity grid as well as for powering telecommunications towers and water pumps.

Bornay has 6,000 installations in 50 countries, with overseas sales accounting for some 40 percent of the company’s €6 million turnover. That percentage looks set to increase: This year, Bornay opened a branch in the United States. “There are a number of states that are taking a major stake in renewable energy and are providing financial support, with flexible funding and tax breaks linked to investments,” said Bornay.

According to the World Wind Energy Association, there were almost a million small wind turbines installed around the world at the end of 2015, with a combined capacity of 945 MW. China accounted for 43 percent of global capacity, followed by the USA (25 percent) and UK (15 percent). A report by Research and Markets predicted this industry would grow by 20 percent between 2016 and 2022. Spanish companies, which export technology worth €2.9 billion annually, are going after this new business.

Growth in their home market, however, has slowed after years of robust growth. According to the Asociación Empresarial Eólica (Wind Power Business Association), wind energy accounts for nearly 20 percent of all electricity in Spain (23,026 MW capacity at the beginning of 2017), and the sector employs 22,468 people. These figures would have been higher were it not for the 2013 government reforms that cut subsidies and guaranteed revenues to Spain’s energy sector—hitting renewables particularly hard.

These reforms put the brakes on the 2011-2020 Strategic Renewable Energies Plan, which had predicted that as of 2015, some 20,000 small wind turbines (between 1.5 and 3 kW) would be installed annually. Julio Amador, head of the Masters program in Renewable Energy and the Environment at the Polytechnic University of Madrid (UPM), estimates that currently, only about 9,000 are installed in the entire country.

In terms of capacity, the Plan had anticipated 35,750 MW by 2020, up from 20,676 MW in 2010. But from 2011 to 2015, only 2,360.5 MW of new wind capacity were installed—and none at all were added in 2015.

The situation is further aggravated by excessive red tape, including the need for numerous permits from regional and national authorities. What’s more, the process is just as complex for small-scale projects as it is for large-scale ones. “You should be able to have an installation like ours up and running in three months,” said Bornay. “But the reality is that, after a year and a half, you’re still running around from one government office to another.”

Another difficulty is production costs. “It’s a vicious cycle: When there’s no demand, no market, you can’t scale up,” Bornay said. Wind turbines cost about €5,000 euros per kW. That means that if you want to meet the electric demands of your home with a small wind turbine, the total cost will be €15,000, given that you’ll probably need 3kW. If the 2011-2020 Strategic Renewable Energies Plan had been carried out as intended—without the 2013 cuts to subsidies and guaranteed revenues—the cost would likely have come down to approximately €1,900 per kW by now.

Bornay has realized that for the time being, the only way to make wind power more affordable is through innovations that will reduce production costs and increase efficiency. For the past three years, he has been working on an ambitious project known as I+D. With funding from the Center for the Development of Industrial Technology (CDTI) and input from the Polytechnic University of Valencia, he has developed a wind turbine that is in the testing phase. “Our goal is to reduce labor and production costs by 70 percent, increase efficiency by 20 percent at low wind speeds, and work within an urban environment,” said Bornay. “We are shooting for installation costs of €2,000 to €2,500 per kW.”

Polytechnic University of Madrid’s Julio Amador said the real potential for small wind turbines lies in cities. “Vertical axis wind turbines can be more useful for buildings. An example is the Sacyr company’s building en Paseo de la Castellana.” Luxury hotels and landmark buildings are other possible markets. For now though, small wind turbines in Spain are used mostly for water pumps in agricultural areas, usually as a hybrid system with photovoltaic power or, to a lesser extent, to supply power to the grid through mini parks. But even their growth will be limited, said Amador, due to strong competition from solar energy which has experienced an ongoing drop in price.

Wind power still holds great appeal as a clean renewable energy source, and technological advances are beginning to address the lingering problems of unpredictable wind speeds, noise, vibrations and high production costs. All that is needed to get the Spanish market growing again is better financial and regulatory support—the type manufacturers such as Bornay are beginning to enjoy in overseas markets.

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Published on October 27, 2017
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