The winds of change

Alternative energy —
TAQA’s purchase of a 50% stake in the Lakefield wind farm in the United States will increase the company’s energy portfolio. It comes as major global companies move into alternative power

Perched on giant rotary blades, they looked like Lego men. But these construction workers were part of the crew that built the Lakefield wind farm development in the United States in 2011.

Nearly two years later, the Jackson County project in America’s heartland state of Minnesota is generating electricity for 68,000 homes and is part of TAQA’s move into alternative sources of power.

“Acquiring 50% in the Lakefield project is a first step in the evolution of TAQA’s global strategy for alternative energy sources,” says Dr Saif Al Sayari, TAQA’s Executive Officer and Head of the Energy Solutions division. “It complements our existing operations in North America and gives us a foothold in the fast-growing global wind market.”

International footprint

Situated in rolling, green fields, the Lakefield wind farm consists of 137 General Electric turbines with the capacity to generate 205.5MW of electricity, enough to power a small town.

Built by a subsidiary of the French energy giant Electricité de France (EDF), Lakefield is high-tech with a capital “H”. Taking a major stake in the project was a natural fit for TAQA as the company expands its global presence.

“The knowledge and international footprint established with this wind farm will enable us to take a leading role in developing other international projects,” says Dr Al Sayari.

Of course, TAQA is not alone in pursuing wind power as well as other alternative energy sources to back up its oil and gas portfolio. Major power companies are pushing ahead with alternative solutions to keep up with the world’s insatiable appetite for energy.

Last November, a report by the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) and Greenpeace International revealed that wind power could supply up to 12% of global electricity demand by 2020. This alone would create 1.4 million new jobs and cut CO2 emissions by more than 1.5 billion tonnes per year, or five times today’s level.

“The Global Wind Energy Outlook shows that the industry could employ 2.1 million people by 2020 – three times more than today, given the right policy support. The most important ingredient for the long-term success of the wind industry is stable, long-term policy,” says Sven Teske, senior energy expert at Greenpeace. By 2030, the report predicts, wind power could generate up to a fifth of global electricity demand (see ‘Wind power share of global electricity demand’, above).

“It is clear that wind energy is going to play a major role in our energy future,” says Steve Sawyer, the secretary general of GWEC.

Future vision

Still, the growth prospects for the sector have sparked an intriguing debate. Research from the influential Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC depicts a future straight out of a science fiction movie.

“There is enough energy available in winds to meet all of the world’s demand. Airborne wind turbines that convert steadier and faster high-altitude winds into energy could generate even more power than ground and ocean-based units,” its website reports, referring to research work carried out by the institution and published in the Nature Climate Change journal last September.

“Today, civilisation uses about 18TW of power. Near-surface winds could provide more than 20 times today’s global power demand and wind turbines on kites could potentially capture 100 times the current global power demand.”

While that might be the future of wind power, the present is steeped in the past, as harnessing one of the planet’s ultimate resources can be traced back centuries.

Dr Al Sayari points out that huge wind towers were used in the Middle East during the 1800s to air-condition homes before the advent of electricity. “For centuries, humans have harnessed the power of the wind to stay cool,” he says.

“Before electricity-generated power grids fuelled your air conditioning, architects in the Middle East had come up with ingenious designs to keep buildings cool. Various forms of traditional ‘windcatchers’ or wind towers were used throughout the Arab world. These towers collected fast-moving, cooler air and channelled it through ducts. Usually, the air was forced through a chamber containing a pool of water, resulting in natural, cool ventilation.”

Wind power was also used in Europe during the Middle Ages to mill flour from grain and even pump water to irrigate farm land. The industrial revolution in the 18th century, and the rise of King Coal to fire factories and heat homes changed the energy landscape before the reign of oil and gas.

But now wind power is going through a renaissance as countries and companies search for alternative energy sources to address concerns about climate change.

“Overall, the future for wind power looks bright,” says Dr Al Sayari. “Countries looking to cut down on pollution and ease global climate change concerns are increasingly searching for new sources of sustainable energy. Wind power is just one of them, but it is efficient and economically viable.”

Today, major wind projects such as the London Array in the UK have captured the imagination of the energy industry and the general public. Costing around US$3bn to build in the Thames Estuary in the south of England, this wind plant will eventually power nearly 500,000 homes. It will also reduce CO2 emissions by 900,000 tonnes a year.

All 175 turbines have been installed and the London Array is now the world’s largest offshore wind farm.

“With its 630MW, the London Array project will be the first of the next generation of larger offshore wind farms,” says Benj Sykes, the UK country manager for DONG Energy Wind, one of the main project partners.

Solid growth

In the rest of Europe, at least one offshore wind turbine was installed every working day last year, according to a European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) report, released in January.

The 293 operational turbines represented 1,166MW, an increase of 33% compared with 2011. A further 76 turbines have yet to be connected to the grid. Overall, the UK remains the leader with nearly 60% of Europe’s total offshore capacity, followed by Denmark (18%), Belgium (8%), Germany (6%) and the Netherlands (5%).

“Offshore wind power is growing solidly,” says Justin Wilkes, the EWEA policy director. “Europe is a world leader in offshore wind energy and could be creating even more.”

New investment era

Across the Atlantic in the US, wind power accounts for 6% of the country’s total electricity generation capacity, according to a report by the research group Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). “A record 13.2GW of turbines were installed last year, including 5.5GW in December, the most for a single month,” the BNEF points out. “Wind projects account for 60GW of total cumulative capacity.”

Back in Jackson County, families are basking in the warm glow of alternative energy. As the massive Lakefield rotary blades turn, wind power is generating electricity to heat hospitals and homes, and light up schools and sports stadiums.

“Our project in the United States will mark the beginning of a new era of investment beyond fossil fuels,” says Dr Al Sayari. “The move into alternative energy will also prove that the UAE is more than just an exporter of oil. As the years go by, the country will become a global player in the alternative energy sector – powering the future with affordable, clean fuel.”