“It’s going to be a disaster. Everybody knows about it, everybody’s bracing for it,” the Chinese senior manager said. “The offshore wind industry will have terrible accidents because of quality issues and the speed of construction.” It was an unexpected confidence delivered with force and certainty. My colleagues and I sat slack-jawed at the round banquet table, shifting uncomfortably in our seats. We were in North Jiangsu Province, a couple hours’ drive from Shanghai. A Chinese wind power components manufacturer had invited us to his plant to learn more about their work and see their progress in the field. The manager spoke on condition of anonymity. “They’re just building the wind turbines too fast; there will be some big accidents,” he concluded. It seemed almost blasphemous for a Chinese manager to express massive failure ahead for an entire industry. Still, he just may have had a point.
The central government plans to meet 15-percent of its energy requirements through alternative means by the year 2020, 100GW of which would come from wind power. A third of the capacity is meant to come from offshore wind power. Already this month, Sinovel has seen the collapse of wind turbines Jiuquan, in China’s northwest Gansu province, and Linghe, in the northeast Liaoning province. Shanxi province this year was also the site of a collapsed turbine. Apparently, workers failed to fully tighten the bolts attaching the turbine to the tower on the Jiuquan and Shangxi turbines. Quality issues have been implicated in the explosion of wind turbines in several instances in Inner Mongolia; unfortunately, the fire was too high in one instance for the local fire engines to extinguish.
Offshore conditions imply a hostility and complexity of conditions and requirements on equipment that is magnitudes more onerous than those for landed wind turbines. Offshore wind technology in China is in the early stages of R&D. Nonetheless, China is powering on with its wind energy plans. The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) has a goal of installing 5,140MW by 2015. Afterwards, they expect to accelerate the installation schedule to meet the 30GW milestone. The plan implies a rate of nearly three wind turbine foundations installed per day. Current installation times for conventional bases are at a minimum of 24 hours per vessel, without including time for transport and set up.
China does not have the technology, experience, equipment or training to meet the goals it has set for offshore wind power generation. “The Chinese are doing what we did fifteen years ago in Europe,” Torben Jorgensen, Head of Technology at Fritz Shur told me in Beijing. “Back then we took wind turbines we had built for land and put them in the water.” Interchangeability also applies to the coatings that protect blades, towers and bases; and to the drives that transform wind into electricity. Chinese producers are taking technologies meant for application in one geography or atmospheric condition and applying those to other geographies: deserts to grasslands; plains to offshore locations. Chinese manufacturers are at the beginning of a learning curve American and European makers left behind years ago. Western companies, however, took their time developing the procedures, processes and technologies that have seen them into international markets. The Chinese, though, are on a Long March with a short attention span.
Alex Hsu, a sales manager at Daoda Heavy Industry Group, told me the company had earlier in the year won an award to fit several dozen 5MW wind turbines off the coast of Fujian province with the company’s suction cassion foundations. Daoda is a shipbuilder. Fujian government officials believed that Daoda’s marine construction experience made it a natural choice to build the foundations. Daoda, however, had no experience in building the great, hollowed structures of concrete and steel, and demurred. It told the government it would need time to learn how to properly pour, cure and buttress supports that would have to withstand time and tides, weather and corrosive salt. Daoda is unusual in the domestic industry for its emphasis on getting it right the first time. The company has been working with Tianjin University to put the demonstration foundation they’ve sunk in the Yangtze River through about twenty different kinds of stress and composition tests. Atop the foundation lazily spins a 2.5MW direct drive wind turbine.
The government expectations placed on Daoda are little different from the scores of other turbine and components makers who are following policy directives and taking local subsidies. A lack of coordination in the supply chain, however, means that components makers and then turbine manufacturers can deliver machines to wind farms with lifetimes that fall far short of the twenty years the farms need to recoup their investments; five to seven years is the expected average lifetime, according to industry insiders. Suppliers, meanwhile, continue to receive payments for their rushed deliveries – however unsound, inappropriate or just plain dysfunctional the products might be. Afterwards, manufacturers make a sprint for the next award, with little accountability to the future.
B.S.D. Mistry of TrendsAsia contributed to the article.