MHI Vestas Safeguarding Track Record as It Ponders the Future of Turbine Innovation (Interview)

Illustration; Image: ©MHI Vestas Offshore Wind

We have been living in a double-digit MW wind turbine era for several days now after MHI Vestas hit the market with a 10MW machine, leaving other wind turbine OEMs behind in this market race. The first two 10MW turbines will be up and running next year to test and demonstrate the new machine within its type certificate.

Illustration; Image: ©MHI Vestas Offshore Wind

Nevertheless, The-First-To-Get-There player is now at a point where it is not only looking at a few more megawatts to be carved into the V164 platform, but also anticipating a cost-friendly solution once there are no more “easy megawatts” to add to the existing platform.

In fact, MHI Vestas is not the only one in this position, since all offshore wind turbine suppliers are mulling over the same breaking point, even though other OEMs with announced double-digit MW turbines have yet to make them available for sale.

The Breaking Point

During an interview with Offshore WIND on 25 September at the Global Wind Summit in Hamburg, MHI Vestas Chief Technology Officer Torben Hvid Larsen illustrated this breaking point with a freehand graph, explaining that there is a point where the existing platforms cease to accommodate further modifications that boost the output at a reasonable cost and the need for much larger turbines and completely new platforms emerges. Here, turbine and project costs take an upturn.

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The more powerful the turbines – the fewer of them need to be installed, which by extension also means fewer foundations and cables need to be installed, so the Balance of Plant cost drops. Now, the turbine price per megawatt and the Balance of Plant cost follow each other in this decrease.

“However, at a certain point, if we would decide to roll out a much more powerful machine, turbine price per MW would suddenly become steep. This is because we would have to bring in much more material as scaling is not linear, do a more extensive redesign and thus invest a lot more,” Torben Hvid Larsen said.

The space with turbine output range between ca. 9MW and 15MW is going to get filled with machines from various suppliers since this is where the industry is headed, MHI Vestas said, adding that it was inevitable for the company to take the first lead in this field thanks to its flexible platform.

However, the breaking point is out there, at a locus yet unknown, according to MHI Vestas.

For now, the prices for the utilities and the customers are going down with bigger and bigger turbines, while all wind turbine OEMs are keeping a close eye on this breaking point, because if they determine the price of their (new) turbine is going up instead of down, it would not make much business sense to go forward with it, since it would not benefit to lowering the Levelized Cost of Energy.

“Of course, a more powerful turbine is more expensive, but here we are looking at cost per megawatt and having a turbine of that kind, which is much larger and costly, means paying much more for all the megawatts that come with it,” said Henrik Bæk Jørgensen, Head of Product Management at MHI Vestas.

In view of the weight given to this breaking point, we were wondering when it will actually “break” the wind turbine OEMs and if it will take significantly longer for the industry to get to cost-effective 20MWs.

Not necessarily, according to MHI Vestas CTO Torben Hvid Larsen, who said: “Wind turbines WILL get much bigger, but I wouldn’t want to guess when this will happen and if it will be in five or ten years. When I started working in the industry in 2001 – and I started in Vestas – we had a 1.5MW wind turbine and were looking to grow it to 2MW, while our competitors had a 3MW one. At that time, who would have dared to think that 17 years later we would have a 10MW turbine?!”

There will definitely be new technology developments, Jørgensen added, but when exactly they will result in a 20MW wind turbine that will still be able to keep the costs down is yet to be seen.

Small Steps and Track Record Just as Important as Size

Looking at other wind turbine suppliers, GE – which has its 6MW Haliade commercially installed – recently announced a 12MW Haliade, while on the other hand, Siemens Gamesa is taking it somewhat of a one megawatt at a time and is now testing its 8MW device.

The fact that MHI Vestas already has a 10MW turbine ready for sale, and eyes further tweaks to bring the platform even higher, could seem like a big jump to an outside observer. However, this is not the case, as the company has been taking carefully calculated steps over the years in an effort to reach this point, according to its CTO.

MHI Vestas is boosting the output of its V164 platform in a very controlled manner, by doing some modifications such as making a stronger gearbox and enhancing the cooling of the electrical system. The company did this to come from 8MW to 9.5MW and is now doing the same to go from 9.5MW to 10MW.

“Going from 8MW to 12MW, for example, in one jump is not something that I would do. That would involve doing things in a not completely controlled way, while with these small steps we can determine how much room we have in our design that could be utilised to further lift the output,” Torben Hvid Larsen said.

This approach allows for testing and obtaining real data, based on which MHI Vestas calculates where it is with the design and evaluates how much the output can be lifted by taking a next, careful step.

The 8.4MW turbines installed in Aberdeen Bay together with two 8.8MW devices best depicts the journey the company is taking, during which it looks at the platform design and decides to utilise any spare capacity it identifies, Henrik Bæk Jørgensen said.

Running the 8.8MW wind turbine together with a prototype running initially 9MW and then 9.5MW allowed MHI Vestas to see how robust of a turbine it has and that led to the conclusion that the company is able to now take the output to 10MW, Larsen added.

Making small moves is vital, according to MHI Vestas Head of Product Management, who emphasised that track record is as important as the turbine size.

“Making major changes to the design basically resets the track record and we do not have the luxury to do that since it would take us years to build it up again,” Jørgensen explained. “Now, we have more than 100 of our V164 turbines installed and we have already reached the level of stability and availability that we would like to be known for. This also has an extremely high value to our customers, because if a turbine is running 98% of the time instead of 90%, that’s money in the bank.”

The new 10MW wind turbine will be ready to roll as part of a commercial project as of 2021. Which offshore wind farm will have the honour depends on the projects available then. Those starting in 2020 are more or less already set on a turbine choice, so rolling out the new turbine a year earlier would not bring any value. On the other hand, by being ready for production in 2021, the 10MW turbine will be able to fit in developers’ plans from that point on.

Written by: Adrijana Buljan, Editing: Adnan Duraković, Nadja SkopljakOffshore WIND Staff