EU power sector not quite the GE canteen but wind chiefs under no illusions

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Joking with one of the GE Power and Water Renewable Energy team at the European Wind Energy Association event in Barcelona this week, I asked her if those on the conventional power side and those on her own unit sat at opposite ends of the GE HQ canteen in Schenctady, New York. Her answer reinforced a consensus I hear a lot in energy sectors.

She reassured me that there was a collegiate atmosphere, with no them and us mentality. In fact many of the people involved had served on both the renewables and fossil fuel power businesses. Somewhat disappointed that the air in that part of upstate New York wasn’t thick with intrigue inspired by never the twain-like competitive world views, I expressed my surprise.

EWEA Chief Executive Andrew Garrad in Barcelona this week
She was quick to tell me something that somewhat explained the fraternal nature of the company’s inter-departmental relations, something easily forgotten amid the propaganda and politicking that confuses the overall power generation picture at times; “We are going to need all power sources to play a part, it’s not just any one technology,” she said.

Europe’s wind energy officials in Spain this week weren’t quite so generous about the other power generators outside their own orbit, but there was realism evident in key note speeches and debates about wind technology’s limitations and what it needed to do in order to be fully credible as a means of driving Europe’s economy and energy future.

The EWEA’S Poul La Cour prize-winner for 2014, Eddie O’Connor, placed emphasis on the fact that without greater lobbying for an expansion of the bloc’s interconnection capacity, the sector’s progress in Europe is going to be severely handicapped. He added that “by and large most states in Europe have insufficient interconnection.”

The Mainstream Renewables chief prioritised that problem far ahead of the cost reduction factor, something that has divided minds in the industry.

A view among speakers and delegates alike at the conference was that conventional power’s proponents had completely overplayed the issue of supports given to renewables, and there was anger at the extent of subsidies being provided globally to fossil fuels (as well as the situation with UK nuclear), which the wind lobby feels is being unfairly overlooked.

They have a point. A recent IEA study showed that fossil fuel subsidies reached $90bn in the OECD and over $500bn globally in 2011. Renewable energy subsidies reached $88bn in the same year.

However pragmatic minds at the top of the European wind energy scene can see the folly of getting too involved in the comparison game and they understand that the industry has plenty to do to remove the cost equation from the argument.

Iberdrola (BMAD: IBE) renewables chief executive Xabier Viteri told delegates with regard to offshore wind power in particular, “My perception is that if we are not able to achieve a big cost reduction, the industry isn’t going to run beyond 2020.”

Eddie O’Connor also noted that the industry needed to up its game in the area of storage, telling the audience that, “We will lose our (renewable energy) lead in Europe if we don’t realise we have a variable source of supply. Look at California where we see 1300 MW of utility grid battery storage is targeted to be installed by 2020.”

The EU wind sector is unsurprisingly not quite in the same space you’ll find at GE HQ. But it’s good to know that, despite its collective repugnance towards coal power’s resurgence in particular, the industry isn’t being distracted by the maddeningly inconsistent energy policies emanating from Brussels, Berlin and London.

It realises that without a focus on interconnection, costs and storage it will find it difficult to win the argument.

By putting more resources into those areas instead of just reacting angrily to perceived injustices inflicted by policymakers, European wind can work more productively to seize its potential and play its part alongside all the others in ensuring an energy-confident Eurozone.

Incidentally, if there was such a thing as a canteen for Europe’s various power generators, would the wind sector only visualise one it has to share happily with other renewables, with gas or coal sectors operating, under their frosty stares, as temps?

Wind’s leadership in Europe might ultimately aspire to such a scenario but are under no illusions about the difficult path ahead to achieve it.

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