A Danish Wind Turbine Maker Harnesses Data in a Push to Stay Ahead

Source: By STANLEY REED, New York Times • Posted: Thursday, August 18, 2016

Vestas windmills at Provestenen near Copenhagen. The global nature of the industry plays to the strengths of a company like Vestas. Laerke Posselt for The New York Times 

AARHUS, Denmark — A project to install hundreds of wind turbines in the Fosen peninsula area of Norway at one point was shelved as unfeasible. The strong breezes that whip off the sea can shift and swing unpredictably, while the soaring cliffs and steep drop-offs create turbulence that wears out expensive equipment.

The venture was rescued with a lot of help from the mathematical calculations of Vestas Wind Systems, a Danish wind power company.

Vestas used data to figure out how to use more powerful turbines for the project, and precisely where to place them. That meant the utility developing the facility could buy fewer turbines, helping cut costs and balancing the economics of the $1.2 billion project.

The company is at the forefront of efforts to make wind a competitive source of energy, rather than just a subsidized experiment. In doing so, it has become a model for the renewables industry, which has struggled at times to remain viable while facing cuts to government subsidies and volatile oil and gas prices.

Vestas understands the fickleness of the renewable energy business.

After the financial crisis and global downturn, Vestas struggled with costs that were too high, as subsidies fell and orders for wind turbines plummeted. It was not the first misfortune for Vestas — it nearly went bankrupt in the 1980s.

Confidence in the company had “hit rock bottom,” acknowledged Bert Nordberg, who became chairman in the midst of the recent crisis. A painful round of cost-cutting followed. Vestas closed or sold off 19 of its 31 factories around the world, cut its work force by about a third to 15,500, and focused on fewer lines of wind turbines.

In 2013, it hired a new chief executive, Anders Runevad, who like Mr. Nordberg is a Swede and a former Ericsson executive. In Denmark, which bore the brunt of the cuts, workers joked about the new “Swedish” approach to doing business.

Anders Runevad, president and chief executive of Vestas, says, “The focus is on staying ahead.” CreditFrank Boutrup Schmidt 

The moves, combined with a recovery in the wind turbine market, quickly paid off. After three consecutive years of losses through 2013, Vestas returned to profitability in the first quarter of 2014. On Thursday, it reported second quarter profit of 278 million euros, or $313 million, more than double the results a year earlier. Revenue rose 46 percent to €2.6 billion.

The broader industry is in better shape, as well. The revenues of a group of eight large turbine makers, including Vestas, grew 17 percent last year to €27 billion, according to David Vos, a renewable energy analyst at Barclays in London.

Producing wind power is also getting cheaper. In some parts of the world, like India, setting up a wind farm to power a factory or a town nearby can even be more practical than conventional methods like building a natural gas pipeline.

It is competitive with fossil fuels even in oil-rich places like the Texas Panhandle in the United States, the company’s largest market. Under favorable circumstances, Mr. Vos pegs Panhandle wind costs at about $29 a megawatt-hour, a wholesale measurement, over the life of a project, compared with $33 a megawatt-hour for a new gas-fired plant in the United States.

The global nature of the industry plays to the strengths of a company like Vestas.

Unlike its rivals — such as General Electric, which focuses on the Americas — Vestas sells across a broader area of the world. It sold wind turbines in 34 countries last year, and it holds the biggest portion of the worldwide onshore wind turbine market, excluding China (which is dominated by domestic players).

“The scale advantage they have is phenomenal,” Mr. Vos said.

Founded as a family owned blacksmith shop in 1898, Vestas over the years manufactured a wide variety of products, including dairy equipment and cranes. It began experimenting with wind turbines in the 1970s as an alternative energy source for local farmers during an era of volatile oil prices. The first turbine it sold, which was based on a design by local blacksmiths, had a rotor just 10 meters, or 33 feet, in diameter.

Now, its turbines are not only far bigger but much more productive.

The company installs giant turbines that may stretch more than 500 feet into the air, with individual blades nearly 190 feet long, whirring at over 180 miles per hour. Its latest devices generate 25 times as much electricity over a year as those made in the 1980s.

Crucial to that progress has been data collection, which Vestas has been doing for years on a large scale.


“When you work with siting and selling wind power plants, you need to know exactly the weather conditions of where you want to put up a turbine,” said Lars Christian Christensen, the Vestas vice president for plant solutions.CreditLaerke Posselt for The New York Times 

“When you work with siting and selling wind power plants, you need to know exactly the weather conditions of where you want to put up a turbine,” Lars Christian Christensen, the company’s vice president for plant solutions, said in an interview at the company’s headquarters on the outskirts of Aarhus, a harbor city on Denmark’s Jutland peninsula.

Vestas has been refining mathematical techniques to predict the speed, variability and other characteristics of wind for more than a decade. In 2006, the company bought a few computers to test the benefits of matching wind forecasts to potential sites for turbines. When customers liked the results, Vestas scaled up to a supercomputer in 2008. It has upgraded the technology and added a team of meteorologists to help it adapt climate models.

That means the company can, for example, predict how the wind is likely to behave over any 10-square-meter patch on Earth during the 20-year life of a wind turbine. By plugging in other variables like the price of a turbine, the cost of renting the land and the tariff a customer would be paid for electricity, Vestas can quickly provide a buyer with the probable financial return for a given location.

The models also allow the company to figure out where the turbines should be placed, and which of its turbines would produce the most revenue. Like its rivals, Vestas now designs turbines for places with light winds as well as heavy ones. It can identify calm periods when the turbines can be shut down for maintenance with the smallest loss of revenue.

In the case of Fosen, that meant the company was able to help Statkraft, the Norwegian state-owned utility building the project, save money and salvage the venture. It offered more powerful turbines that were not yet on the market, meaning Statkraft could buy fewer devices and save on installation costs for Fosen, which is capable of producing a gigawatt of electricity — comparable to the output of some nuclear power plants when the wind is blowing hard enough.

“They are very well-advanced,” said Espen Hagstrom, technical manager for Statkraft. “Maybe they are the best.”

Despite the advantages, Vestas must still navigate industry turbulence, from uncertainty over the future of government subsidies to the volatility of oil and gas prices.

Once-major players, like the solar giant SunEdison in the United States and Spain’s Abengoa, have been humbled. And some of Vestas’s most formidable rivals, such as the wind arms of General Electric and Germany’s Siemens, are units of bigger and better-financed companies that can easily outspend Vestas.

“The focus is on staying ahead,” said Mr. Runevad, the chief executive of Vestas. “We are very much focused on that.”