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Beyond turbines, European wind giants eye storage, solar to boost growth

SNL Image
A hot air balloon floats behind a wind turbine near Lebus, Germany, in 2017.
Source: Associated Press

Europe's wind powerhouses are turning to solar and storage technologies in an effort to diversify their revenue streams and capitalize on changing energy markets.

Project developers such as Ørsted A/S and Vattenfall AB, along with major wind turbine manufacturers Vestas Wind Systems A/S and Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy, are exploring business opportunities in combining wind farms with solar and energy storage, with some already making investments.

Speaking to analysts Feb. 15, Siemens Gamesa CEO Markus Tacke said that while a commercial energy storage expansion was not imminent, the Spain-based wind turbine maker wants to help lead the industry in incorporating storage in the near future. The company is also working on an off-grid hybrid solution, comprising wind, solar and batteries, in Spain.

"We are working together with customers finding low-cost, large scale storage solutions which could be the trigger, a game changer and an enabler for our industry to move ... forward," he said.

Competitor Vestas announced in December 2017 that it will spend €10 million on a partnership with Swedish battery-maker Northvolt AB to develop battery storage systems for Vestas' wind plants. It has been working on a handful of hybrid projects with other clean energy companies, including a wind-solar hybrid demonstration project with EDP Renováveis in Spain. Vattenfall said on March 2 it plans to invest €100 million over the next two years on large-scale solar energy projects, while Danish developer Ørsted said that it is actively looking into potential solar and storage projects to invest in.

The recent moves signal a growing sentiment in the wind industry, as Siemens Gamesa's onshore wind division CEO Ricardo Chocarro declared: "We are going beyond the turbines."

'More bang for our buck'

Continuing several years of strong growth, Europe's wind industry expanded by 10.4% in 2017 to exceed 178,000 MW of installed capacity, according to the Global Wind Energy Council. Wind is now one of the most developed and lowest-cost energy sources for European utilities. That growth is set to slow as the market matures and governments pull back from rich subsidies, said Mike Hayes, global head of renewables for advisory and auditing firm KPMG. In some countries, such as the United Kingdom, the public has started to push back on new wind farm construction, leading companies to seek other avenues for growth.

"Companies are thinking about, 'How do we get more bang for our buck with all of this?' And storage is now emerging as a real solution," Hayes said. Energy storage complements renewables during periods of intermittency, when solar and wind production are unable to meet peak demand.

The wind majors are not limiting their ventures to their home countries; Siemens Gamesa, for example, is working on a thermal-storage prototype in Germany, as well as a commercial wind farm coupled with 28 MW of solar photovoltaic in India. Danish developer Ørsted has partnered with NEC Energy Solutions Inc. to include a storage component in its Bay State Wind bid proposal in Massachusetts.

To be sure, opportunities for stand-alone wind projects are not going away. A Vestas spokesperson said in a March 28 email that wind turbines "will remain the core of Vestas' offering going forward," but the company is also allocating resources to other energy technologies such as storage and grid integration.

And while Ørsted CEO Henrik Poulsen has said there may be opportunities to move into other renewables, his company is still in the early days of exploring new business segments, said Joanna Fic, a Moody's analyst who covers Ørsted.

"They're very much focused on offshore wind and that's where their great ambitions are in terms of increasing its portfolio to 11 or 12 GW over time," she said.

Considering the rapid evolution of energy markets, Fic said, it is not a surprise that companies are looking at other growth opportunities across the renewable energy industry. Even for offshore wind veterans like Ørsted and Vattenfall, the European market has become crowded, and there is growing competition in emerging offshore wind markets such as Taiwan and the U.S.

Until recently, pairing storage with renewables has been uneconomic, said Swami Venkataraman, a solar energy analyst for Moody's. A recent report from Moody's projected that the cost of lithium-ion batteries used in energy storage will fall to about $100/KWh between 2020 and 2022, one-half of today's level.

"The prices are so low now, that it is really possible to talk about wind and solar as a dispatchable asset that's completely clean," Venkataraman said.