There’s no doubt that the wind power industry in Spain is an important sector both in environmentally and economically. What European governments want is for renewable energy sources to dominate industrial and domestic consumption of electricity, which means there’s still a lot more potential for growth for the industry.
This view is shared by Fernando Sánchez, a lecturer at CEU Valencia who researches the use of technology in the energy industry. He advocates the use of renewable energy sources in the quest for a more competitive and sustainable energy sector. This is clear from his research but also in his more public activities, such as his recent participation in the “Actuando en verde” roundtable at the University. “Actuando en verde” is a national initiative enabling a range of experts from industry, government and the media debate possible solutions for the improvement of the planet’s rather poor state of health – and it seems likely that there is a role there for wind power.
Advantages and disadvantages of wind power
Fernando, is wind power a reliable source of energy? What advantages and disadvantages does it have in comparison with other green energy sources?
It is certainly a reliable source of energy because it is inexhaustible, like solar power. It’s a renewable source of energy, and that’s a key factor in terms of the social commitment that most developed countries have made.
The practical advantages it possesses include its versatility in terms of space – you can see wind turbines in the countryside and in the sea. In Spain, there are areas of Castile and Aragon which are covered in wind farms and that shows how adaptable it is with regard to where you can put it. However, not every setting is appropriate for it. The wind doesn’t always blow everywhere, so it’s a reliable but not a stable resource. You need regular gusts of between 10 and 40 km per hour and you don’t get that everywhere.
Another great advantage is that it doesn’t generate pollution: it’s a clean energy source that doesn’t create environmentally toxic waste.
However, a lot of research now focuses on the recyclability of the materials that the turbine blades are made of. They are usually made of a polymeric material, a plastic: they may be reinforced with fibreglass or carbon fibre, but they mainly consist of plastic. And this means that we have to look carefully at how these materials can be reused or recycled.
According to the European Commission, in 2017 more than 350,000 jobs depended on the wind power industry
But their manufacture is subject a precise industrial process and that is also an advantage. The turbine blades are huge, up to 130 to 140 metres in length. That’s why they have to be made in very special factories, on an industrial scale, not least in terms of cost, and that means that the manufacturing process is highly defined and precise. In fact, productivity is increasing in this sense: we’re producing blades more cheaply, while increasing quality. The technology used in wind power, in Spain and elsewhere, has really progressed a lot over the last 15 years and it will keep on progressing.
One important drawback of wind power is the obvious visual impact that it makes on the landscape. You have to remember that we’re talking about wind farms, with a lot of turbines which are spread out in that location – you don’t get turbines on their own. Studies have been carried out to try to minimize this visual impact, but it’s very difficult: you have to seek out the wind, and this means that mountain ridges are where wind turbines make most sense.
And then there’s also the impact on birds. It’s true that many birds do crash into the turbines and the blades move at a tremendous speed: the rotation speed is slow, but the tip of the blade may be moving at 200 to 300 km per hour. This is a problem that is very difficult to resolve.
Technologically, the main disadvantage is that you have to store the energy generated and storage is tremendously expensive. In fact, we are doing a lot of research right now on using hydrogen as a way of storing and transporting the energy made using wind power. Basically, we’re looking for ways of creating renewable hydrogen, so that we can use the energy at a time other than immediately when it is generated.
Right now, the energy from wind power goes straight into the network, meaning that it needs to be used at that time. This means that energy production can’t be optimized at night because at a domestic level there’s low demand. That’s why we’re seeing discounts offered for night-time use of electricity: some of the electricity generated can’t be stored and so rates are lowered to stimulate consumption. If you have an electric car or you need to charge the battery of a device, it’s better to do it at night.
Research on renewables
You’ve carried a lot of research on wind power over the years: where is that research heading now?
Wind power is a mature technology, but it can still be improved and optimized further. Wind power first gained attention after many wind farms were established in Spain and across Europe, and these wind farms are now fifteen to twenty years old.
In general, the blades on wind turbines have a life cycle of around twenty to twenty-five years. There’s no doubt that the technology and the materials are improving all the time, but there’s a big problem: the blades erode over time. It’s particularly noticeable on the leading edge of the blade, because that’s the surface that impacts first upon certain particles in the air, such as dust or raindrops. On their own, you might think that impacts like that are unimportant, but when you remember that these impacts occur repeatedly at high speeds, then you can see how this causes serious damage. And it’s costly and difficult to fix: you have to stop the turbine, get workers out to it and up to the blade, and then they have to apply coatings to the blade in the field, in circumstances which make it difficult for this to be done appropriately.
This situation had stimulated a lot of research on surfaces and the materials for the leading edge of these blades – that’s what we’re doing. We’ve been working with a Valencian company, Aerox Advanced Polymers, for some time now, trying to add to what they know. They make specific polymeric materials for the wind power industry and together we undertake research on improving and developing those materials to prevent erosion. And we don’t just work with them; we also work with companies such as Siemens Gamesa and Vestas, the leading international companies in the manufacture of wind turbine blades.
We’re also participants in European projects alongside other institutions, such as ORE Catapult in Scotland and TNO in the Netherlands. We’re working on projects focusing on recycling the structural materials used in blades, which isn’t economically viable right now. I think that’s a research area which will really grow because recycling the blades is a real problem: each wind farm has thousands of blades and there’s nothing in place for them to be recycled.
Wind power in Spain: leaders in patents, the industry and consumption
Where does Spain stand in the rankings for renewable energy?
In terms of the power it can provide, we’re about fourth or fifth in the world, with the USA and China in the lead. In Europe, we only trail Germany, the country that generates the most electricity from wind power. So, that’s really positive: wind power has a big presence in Spain, we generate a lot of power and there are many Spanish companies in the industry. We generate renewable energy and we’re a country that others want to imitate, especially with regard to wind and solar power.
Spain’s Integrated Energy and Climate Plan also seeks to boost production and consumption. By 2030 the aim is for 42% of all energy consumption to be renewable and for 74% of the energy generated to be renewable too. This means that the circumstances in Spain are favourable for the growth of renewable energy generation, and wind power will have a major role in that.
The experts predict that at the current rate of growth by 2050 a third of all electricity across the world will come from wind power
In terms of the industry, Spain is the third biggest exporter of wind turbine blades, and that’s a great thing because it creates wealth and employment. Spanish companies are at the forefront of the industry and there are also foreign companies operating here. This means that many of the blades installed across the world have been made here, and that translates into investment, economic growth and knowledge growth in Spain. We are also one the leading countries for new patents in wind power thanks to CENER and universities like ours which are very active in this area.
In general, we’re in a great position to grow economically and industrially thanks to wind power. There’s a lot of growth to come at an international level in the industry and there’s no doubt that that will benefit Spain.