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Protectionism may curb steel availability for windtowers: GWEC executives

Highlights

Wind power take-up faces bureaucratic, permitting hurdles

Sector working with steelmakers on green steel production

EU eyes antidumping tariffs on imports of Chinese towers

Protectionism could impact availability of steel for the wind power industry moving forward, wind power industry executives said Oct. 18. It may also be a challenge to source sufficient quantity of green steel for these towers, as demand grows, they said.

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Steel tonnages needed will grow because global wind power capacity needs to quadruple from current levels to meet climate targets at the "below 2 degrees" scenario by 2050, according to a new manifesto from the Global Wind Energy Council. This was presented by council executives at a Bloomberg New Energy Finance briefing in London as a COP-26 climate meeting manifesto, designed to encourage governments to help speed installation of new capacity.

Ben Backwell, CEO of GWEC, said that to meet International Energy Agency climate targets, global wind power capacity needs to be multiplied by four from current levels to 8.3 terawatts of energy by 2050, including both onshore and offshore installations, from capacity of 750 gigawatts in place at the end of 2020.

"Capacity is growing at roughly 90 gigawatts/year worldwide, with a lot of growth in China," he said. 2020 saw a record number of wind installations in the US and China: however, wind power capacity "needs to grow everywhere," he said.

Rebecca Williams, director of COP26 for GWEC, however, noted that progress in installing new capacity is slower than is desirable from a targets perspective, due to bureaucratic and permitting hurdles and grid capacity shortcomings in some locations.

"8 Gigawatts of power is stuck in permitting in Germany alone and in Scotland there are difficulties with planning enquiries," Williams said.

The international COP-26 meeting is due to start in Glasgow, Scotland, at the end of this month to address climate change issues.

Steel supplies

According to Morten Dyrholm, senior vice-president, marketing, of windfarm developer Vestas Wind Systems, development and maintenance of local supply chains is of paramount importance in the wind industry. At present steel for US and EU wind towers is typically sourced locally, and it is a "misconception" that huge steel towers are shipped around the world to build wind towers: most of the steel plates needed are produced locally, he said during the briefing.

However, whether steel supply bottlenecks occur might depend on the level of protectionism that could impact imports, Dyrholm said, noting that there has been discussion in the EU on imposing antidumping duties on imports of steel wind towers from China. This follows duties imposed on similar products entering Mexico last year.

"We need time to prepare our supply chains," Dyrholm said. Producers are in discussions with suppliers of 'green' steel for windfarms, now considered essential for the increasing sustainability of wind farms, he said.

Wind turbines are already 85% - 95% fully sustainable, and will eventually reach 100% sustainability, one GWEC source said.

"A key element [of building up the supply chains] has been to work with producers to produce more green steel for the wind industry," said Rebecca Williams.

Big windfarm operators including Siemens Gamesa, General Electric and Vestas Wind Systems have typically engaged with organizations including the so-called Responsible Steel producer grouping, which is promoting steel industry decarbonization.

The goal of quadrupling wind power capacity does not however necessarily mean that the number of towers or even the amount of steel required will also be multiplied by four, because the steel and concrete structures are getting thinner and more efficient than in the past, according to Dyrholm.

Materials use may also be changing: it was noted at the briefing that Vestas itself has recently acquired capital in Modvion, a company which produces wooden wind towers.

Wooden tower prototypes

The GWEC source added that wooden wind towers are still at the "prototype stage". Synthetic balsa wood can be used for the wind towers, the source added.

Backwell noted that as the wind power sector is typically 86% financed by the private sector, is it not currently financing availability which is posing a problem to more rapid take-up of this type of power, but lack of projects due in part to bureaucratic holdups.

"Seventy percent of energy must come from wind and solar by 2050 [to meet the climate targets]," he said.