David Martinez Lopez
Director of SPV's México
Envision Energy
Expert Contributor

Tech Trends Shaping a Net-Zero Future: Beyond Wind Turbines

By David Martínez López | Tue, 09/20/2022 - 16:00

First, and to understand where we are going in terms of technological trends for harnessing wind energy within the Mexican landscape, I think it is important to understand where we came from, what has been done in the past and mainly why it was done the way it was done.

The first energy-producing wind turbine dates back to Scotland, all the way to 1887. Regarding Mexico, the first wind farm dates to 1994:  “La Venta I” Wind Farm, located in the state of Oaxaca. This wind farm not only was Mexico’s first, but also the first in Latin America as a whole. Believe it or not, the farm’s total installed capacity was barely 1.5MW. As of 2007, the installed capacity (IC) in Mexico had gone from 1.5MW to 1,263MW. A milestone that was later recorded as the first boom in renewable energy in the country. 

Around 840GW are installed worldwide in the present day, with China being the world benchmark for this installed capacity, followed by the US. Globally, it is expected that an additional 1,000GW of IC will be reached by 2024, thus representing a 54 percent increase versus 2019.

By mid-2020, there were around 6.5GW installed in Mexico (out of a total of 80GW), of which 1,280MW were installed in 2019 alone (representing 26 percent versus 2018). Since the 1990s, wind energy has accumulated investments of almost US$11.5 billion. Just under 6 percent of the energy generated in Mexico comes from wind power. Globally, there are benchmark countries such as Denmark, in which 47 percent of the energy consumed is being covered by wind energy.

Now, the organic answer to the question about technological trends shaping the wind industry globally would be that the rotors in onshore WTGs will shortly exceed 200m in rotor diameter plus a higher rotor-size-to-rating ratio that will far exceed the swept area of products as we know them today. I also see wind turbines reaching nominal powers of close to 10MW plus the inclusion of more direct-drive technologies than what we see in the market today. As for the height of the towers, we have already seen that they are not only being manufactured in tubular steel but also in concrete, with some hybrid designs here and there that have not yet become a  standard for the industry. Tower heights will soon reach 200m at hub height. However, anybody who is somebody within the wind energy industry knows that, so I would like to instead focus my answer based on technological trends in two moments in time: in the short term or immediate term and in the medium to long term.

Short Term (Keyword: Integration)

  1. Integration with other generation/storage systems: solar plants, batteries, etc. Not just renewable, considering that wind technology’s curve is already at globally low prices. Proof of that was the fact that Mexico had some of the most competitive prices in the world for wind energy in the third auction of 2018.

  2. On a wind turbine/wind farm level: use of modern systems (no longer innovative) for processing and treating massive data for decision-making, such as big data, that today require specialized software and applications, so that we can generate and formulate predictions based on the behavior of the observed patterns = wind predictions + arrangements or formations of turbines, obtaining advantages not only in generation but also in transmission.

As project owners and/or sponsors, we focused on reducing the cost of our assets and we began to strongly evaluate software-based alternatives to optimize our assets. I see that the wind energy market presents many areas of opportunity for the industrial application of big data. There are thousands of wind turbines installed globally, each highly equipped with measurement instruments and control systems that communicate data 24/7. This presents a clear opportunity in optimizing data and what actions or decisions we take based on their analysis. Currently, IT tools help us to "see" what is happening with generation assets but I believe that through big data we will not only be able to see what is happening, but more importantly, "understand" the reasons behind the performance of any given asset,with much more comprehension than what we currently employ on a general scale. 

This understanding will allow us to predict and prevent unscheduled downtime. The challenge is to use truly intelligent turbines in such a way that through the evaluation of weather conditions, OM reports, the information from machine components as well as the performance of similar models operating under similar conditions on a global scale, makes the decision-making process simpler and to the point for operators and asset owners.

Data mining on individual wind turbines can and will help determine which ones perform at their best given current circumstances or during a specific time period. By using this date in such a way, building wind farms with maximum efficiency and performance is actually achievable. Utility companies then can have much better control of energy dispatch from using wind power as an alternative and reliable renewable energy source.

Medium to Long-Term View (Keyword: Implementation) 

When it comes to the role of renewable energy within the global energy transformation looking into the future, it is expected that both wind and solar energy will be key in paving the way for the transformation of the global electricity sector. Onshore plus offshore wind combined would generate more than one-third (35 percent) of the total electricity needs by 2050, thus becoming the prominent source of generation by definition. To achieve that, I see that “new” or even updated policies will be implemented in favor of the use and deployment of the use of energy coming from wind. 

Some of those policies have already been implemented in countries such as Germany, Spain, the UK and France. Such countries have been trying to maximize the inclusion of renewable energy incentives, energy directives, carbon-related taxes, and the production tax credit (PTC) as it was called, particularly in the US. The European Union is currently the region that has been leading the charge toward the reduction of carbon emissions by 2030, with the goal of reducing such emissions by 55 percent. Actually, the Paris Agreement from 2015 is one of the mechanisms that best reflects concerns about climate change, highlighting the need for a profound energy transformation on a global scale. 

Sure, all these policies to be implemented represent a very good approach toward reaching a net-zero or carbon-neutral future by 2050, but what about the technology “S-curve” (technology versus money or effort invested) expectation for the coming years? 

It seems that one of the main challenges ahead of us in terms of decarbonization and transformation of the world’s energy system relates to the upscaling of energy harnessed from renewable sources. 

Looking ahead, I see increasing low-cost energy coming from renewable sources combined with a wider implementation of electric-based technologies, particularly in the transport (both commercial and industrial) and heating (industrial and residential) applications, as the most important synergy that we need to keep an eye on when envisioning the decarbonization and transformation of the world’s energy system as referred to in the previous paragraph. 

An example of this are the decreasing offshore auction prices set to be seen in the following years, with strong indications that price per MWh considering an “all in” mix, including grid connection, revenue mechanisms and contracted-length, will be around US$70-75 by 2025, compared to a whopping US$200-plus/MWh in 2017. 

Having said that, it is clear that energy coming from wind turbines will remain a key renewable energy solution in the coming years and even decades.

The Promising Role of the System Operator (Keyword: Planification)

To further achieve the ideas above, the system or grid operator together with the utility company play a critical role in terms of continuously delivering energy that is affordable, available and in a secure way to every segment of the population within the country. 

Thus, CENACE, in this case as system operator, is the main entity responsible for such an important task. Currently, the National Electric System (SEN) has the arduous task of providing service to around 130 million Mexicans who live across a vast surface of around 2 million km2. Through technologies such as big data and IoT, it would be possible to adequately and promptly predict and prevent the characteristics of demographic growth versus growing demand, and not only that, but also to understand the reasons why certain patterns exist depending on the behavior of users and the conditions of the SEN, according to the different control regions. 

In this way we will have  the tools to plan a highly efficient and effective system that would translate into more accessible electricity supply costs for all and thus also be able to anticipate catastrophic events, as we experienced last year with the freezing weather in the northern part of the country that also had an effect in Texas, along with the blackouts that have become a standard, particularly in the Yucatan Peninsula, and that still affect millions of people countrywide. 

Transition to Net-Zero. The Future is Now.

History has taught us that projections from the past have been pretty much accurate when it comes to energy prices coming from wind energy and how they were expected to stabilize once the technology curve found its sweet spot. An example of this is the steady and accelerated cost reduction in energy coming from wind ever since 2015, which has been even greater than the projections made ahead of that time. 

Within the following decade, the cumulative amount of installed capacity coming from wind is expected to triple, thus having a major impact on shaping the trends for the energy sector and particularly in addressing some of the biggest concerns we have in 2022: the environment and climate change. 

By continuing to use energy coming from wind, it is expected that by 2050, close to 260 billion gallons of water expected to be used in the generation of energy coming from fossil sources would then be saved. Not only that, but also around 2 to 2.3 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions would also be prevented from reaching the atmosphere. All odds say that it is safe to continue to expect even more cost-cuts from wind power in the future, a carbon neutral future that will provide ourselves and our families with energy that is available, affordable, reliable and sustainable. That is what I like to call “Beautiful Energy.” 

Photo by:   David Martinez Lopez