2 June 2020
Interview with Michael C. Brower, PhD, Vice President, UL Renewables
We sat down with Michael C. Brower to discuss changing power markets, the impact of COVID-19 and whether or not wind energy is too focused on being ‘big.’
Firstly, can you tell our readers a little about UL?
UL is a 125-year old firm based in the United States that helps industries manage risk through independent, third-party services, including certification, advisory, and digital services. In the European wind industry, we are probably best known for type certification and testing of wind turbines, activities led by our DEWI-OCC certification unit and DEWI testing laboratory (both accredited by DAkkS). We work with all the top European turbine manufacturers. We are equally recognized for our research, especially on offshore turbines (e.g., FINO, RAVE).
UL supports the European wind industry in many other areas, as well. We’re leaders in advisory services such as energy yield assessments, due diligence, and asset management, and we provide wind-assessment platforms (OpenWind, Windographer, Windnavigator), wind and solar plant monitoring (RAMP), and real-time forecasting. UL’s cutting-edge work in lifetime extension analysis of wind turbines, which can be coupled with our RAMP plant monitoring service, is a great example of how we are helping plant owners and operators reduce costly failures and achieve higher returns on their projects.
We have offices and representatives throughout Europe. Our main Renewables competence centers are located in Germany (Bremen, Cuxhaven, Wilhelmshaven, Oldenburg), France (Lyon), Spain (Pamplona, Barcelona), and Turkey (Izmir).
What are the most exciting developments you have seen in the wind industry?
Speaking as an old timer in this business (and with more than a touch of nostalgia for the past), I would say the most exciting thing has been to witness the industry’s transformation from its very small beginnings to a vitally important global energy player. I remember attending “major” wind conferences in the US and Europe where there were just a few hundred participants, when the largest wind turbines generated barely 100 kW, and offshore wind was a dream. Back then, we thought it would be amazing if wind energy could someday supply 5% of a country’s or region’s power needs. Today wind is playing a meaningful part in the fight against climate change, and that’s wonderful to see.
Of course, there are many exciting technical developments under way right now – bigger and more efficient turbines, fixed and floating offshore machines, new materials and design concepts for blades and towers, and so much else, all aimed at making wind energy even more competitive and adaptable to every place on Earth. But nothing will compare in my mind with that first, slow-motion revolution, which I was privileged to be part of.
What changes would you like to see in the wind industry?
This may strike your readers as an odd thing to say, but I’m concerned that wind energy is sometimes too focused on being big.
Don’t get me wrong: moving to bigger turbines and bigger projects is essential to success in many markets, especially offshore. Economies of scale are helping to drive wind prices down, and of course I’m all for that.
But these days, power markets are moving towards distributed applications such as microgrids, which bring power generation closer to users and provide benefits to communities such as resilience and sustainability. (If I had to guess, I would say COVID-19 is only going to accelerate this trend.) This sector is presently being dominated by solar and batteries. I would love wind energy to be a player there, as well, and for us not to forget the smaller applications.
Now, I’m sure I’ll get emails saying that distributed wind is not forgotten. Indeed, Europe has been a leader in community-based wind, and I much admire that development model. But let’s face it, these days the conversation in Europe is all about those massive projects offshore. It would be good to make sure we reserve some attention and investment for sustainable and resilient community projects, as well.
How do you think COVID-19 might affect the wind industry and your business?
First of all, I’m grateful that very, very few of UL’s employees have gotten sick with COVID-19. What’s more, I’m incredibly proud of what our staff have accomplished and the great spirit they have shown throughout this challenging period. Thanks to a lot of hard work by our employees working from home and by UL’s business-continuity teams, they’ve been able to continue to support our customers with surprisingly few disruptions in project work. (The obvious exception is field work that could not be performed because of travel restrictions.)
I’m also happy to see that, after several weeks of horrifying news, Europe is gradually bringing the virus under control and everyday life and business are starting to return to something closer to normal.
That said, we’re only just beginning to assess the impacts of COVID-19 on the wind industry. So far, I’d say the impacts have been rather muted. It’s surprising to me how few projects have been cancelled or delayed. Of course, my perception may be biased, because our customers tend to be big and financially strong. But my cautious prediction is that the wind industry will get through 2020 a little battered but not broken.
What I am much less sure of is what happens in 2021 and beyond. If there’s a long-term economic slowdown, then demand for new power of all kinds will surely drop. That means lower prices, delayed auctions, more difficulty securing power purchase agreements, and so on. On the other hand, if economies recover relatively quickly – and especially if governments continue their green energy investments – then I think the wind market in Europe could rebound. We will just have to see.
Whatever happens, UL will be there to support our customers and help them succeed.
Going forward, post-COVID-19, what role do you see your organisation playing in the future development of wind energy?
UL has always seen itself as a partner helping industries manage their risks, whether those risks concern safety, performance, reliability, or sustainability. That isn’t going to change.
When it comes to wind energy, our goal will continue to be to help our customers get where they want to go. But that destination is evolving. These days, for wind turbine OEMs, it’s all about cutting costs and time to market, and UL is responding with a top-to-bottom, digital-driven revision of our type certification process. From our developer and investor customers, we’re seeing a growing need for assurance that the ever-more-diverse turbine models available today are not only certified and tested according to accepted standards, but will also perform well – efficiently, reliably, and with low operating costs. And so we’re bringing our deep expertise and software tools to bear, both offshore and onshore, to help provide the advice our customers need.
Looking ahead, the integration of storage with wind in hybrid projects is growing fast, and UL is ready with industry-leading battery expertise to support that development. And with UL’s acquisition of the HOMER microgrid software in 2019, we are committed to helping our clients develop successful microgrid and other distributed projects, including wind along with solar and storage technologies, inverters, controllers, and the rest.
How has WindEurope membership benefited your organisation?
WindEurope enables us to be in contact with the great variety of our European customers in the wind business, from wind turbine OEMs to operators and financial institutions. Furthermore, WindEurope’s working groups and tasks forces are the best places to share our knowledge and learn from other stakeholders on the new industry challenges.
If we look ten years ahead, what do you hope to have achieved?
Well, I think I’ll be doing well if I make it to age 69 in good health and good spirits!
As for UL, I hope our Renewables business will be even stronger than it is now, with a continued commitment to providing the industry with relevant expertise and technology coupled with strict independence and objectivity in the service of our customers.
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