The Recharge News Editor-in-Chief Ben Backwell’s book titled Wind Power-The Struggle for Control of a New Global Industry, with a foreword from Steve Sawyer, was released earlier this autumn.¬†
We talked to Ben about his new book:
What inspired you to write this book?
I wanted to capture some of the excitement of being involved in the wind industry and transmit this to a wider audience. Wind is one of the fastest growing industrial sectors in the world and is constantly pushing the boundaries of what is possible in terms of technology. But most of the books out there tend to be rather dry technical manuals. I wanted to write something that had a narrative and characters and would help people look at the wind industry in a global way.
What were the three most surprising things that you learnt about the industry while writing the book?
Firstly, I was struck by how closely intertwined the modern industry has been with the fight for clean, safe power and how much idealism there has been and continues to be in the industry, despite it being big business. The starting point for the book was the Tvindkraft wind turbine in Denmark in the 1970s and the incredible amount of public engagement there was in the project, with around 100,000 people visiting the site. Things are obviously much more corporate these days. But there is still a strong sense among executives even at the highest level that the wind industry has a vital role in saving the world.
Secondly, I was surprised by the wind industry’s willingness to take risks from the very beginning. Both developers and turbine manufacturers have made some pretty big bets on markets and technological developments that haven’t always worked out well, at least in the short term. This willingness to take risks can sometimes lead to painful periods of adjustment, but on the whole I think it’s been a positive thing. Because overall, wind has consistently grown faster than even its most optimistic supporters had expected it to.
Thirdly, on a more negative note, I am surprised at how short sighted some politicians have been in terms of realizing the long term potential of wind. Look at events in Spain, which built up a world class wind industry that was challenging places like Denmark and the US and then went a long way in destroying it in a couple of short years when the Euro zone crisis hit.
What do you see as three biggest challenges for the sector in the near future?
I guess the main challenge as I sit it is whether the wind industry can reach a level of scale and integration that would allow it decisively raise the level of manufacturing technique and lower costs further.
Part of the solution to this problem lies in investors willingness to keep making the big bets and investing in plant, and this in turn is tied up with the development of policy on a global level. But how things play out also has to do with whether further large scale consolidation takes place. In my view, it will, although to reiterate, this has to be about investment and not just companies being absorbed by others.
And finally – and again it’s related to this – how will China’s wind industry become integrated with the global wind industry? Because in some ways, there are currently two wind markets: China, where the western OEMs don’t get much of a look-in, and the rest of the world, where the big Chinese OEMs haven’t made much impact so far.
If you were a ‘decider’ what would be the biggest changes you would make in the industry….in order for it to live up to its potential?
One thing I would like to see is more knowledge sharing and less emphasis on different manufacturers defending their IP and their own business models. Offshore wind is an area that could advance much more quickly if people were more prepared to share data. But in general, manufacturing on a global level is moving towards a more collaborative, open source model. And the wind industry seems to be way behind the curve on this.
What do you think the industry should do to maximize its influence on policymakers to place wind power/renewables on top of their energy agendas?
To some extent it’s just going out and proving time and time again that the wind industry can solve the most urgent problems of the day in the most effective manner available, whether that’s reducing carbon emissions, replacing ageing power fleets, or meeting fast growing demand in emerging economies. But the industry also needs to be more effective in marketing and selling its story to politicians and the public. There are some incredibly “sexy” features in our industry, that should put us up there with Silicon Valley and the tech sector. But we should get better at making this count.
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