UK wind and marine tech companies scent opportunity in the wind in the South China Sea, reports Mark Hillsdon
What Chinese manufacturing has achieved with onshore renewables, it is now looking to replicate offshore, with a target to install 5GW of offshore wind turbine capacity in the South China Sea by 2020.
While Chinese manufacturers are world leaders in onshore renewables, there is acceptance that China may need to look beyond its shores for the technology it needs.
British companies, acknowledged world leaders in offshore wind technology, see a huge opportunity.
The South China Sea is potentially the largest offshore energy market in the world with up to 500GW capacity, explains Professor Lars Johanning, professor of ocean technology at the University of Exeter. It also offers the most effective way to power the cities along the country's eastern seaboard.
A key problem is that over three quarters of the offshore wind potential in China is located in typhoon areas
“China has stepped up the installation of solar energy and onshore wind capacity. However, the industrialized centres along the coast do not have significant renewable energy resources available, apart from one: offshore wind energy,” says Johanning.
One key problem is the fact that over three quarters of the offshore wind potential in China is located in areas exposed to typhoon risks, Johanning says.
The answer, he says, is floating offshore wind technology, and he is working with colleagues from Dalian University of Technology on a project called Resilient Impetrated-Coupled Flow platform design methodology (ResIn).
He also believes that the project will identify problems requiring specific solutions that open up opportunities along the supply chain for innovative companies with the tech China needs.
The UK’s Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult (ORE) has signed an agreement with China’s Tus-Wind to establish the UK-China Technology Growth Accelerator. This will help to boost technology innovation and deployment of UK small and medium sized companies (SMEs) in the Chinese offshore wind market, and a key component will be collaboration around the new Tus Offshore Wind Science Park in Shandong province, which will include a 500MW demonstrator.
Dr Steve Wyatt, the catapault’s R&D director, said: “We have identified areas such as operations and maintenance, blade and rotor technology and electrical infrastructure as key areas where UK SMEs can export to Chinese markets.”
Chinese companies are acutely aware that there are lessons already learned in Europe
Andy Thompson, market lead offshore and onshore assets at engineering and construction firm SNC-Lavalin Atkins, said Chinese companies are “acutely aware that there are lessons already learned in Europe that can help to improve the performance of their offshore wind farms and help to grow a self-sustainable domestic industry”.
Wyatt and his team have negotiated a minimum of 15% UK content in the demonstrator, which will be worth around £220m to UK businesses, a figure that jumps to £2bn when taking into account the 10GW pipeline of offshore wind developments.
“The project is about giving UK companies a toe hold in the biggest, fastest-growing offshore wind market in the world,” adds Wyatt.
One company that was on an ORE trade mission to China in March was Essex-based SME GreenSpur Renewables, which is developing a technology that will help the wind industry move away from its current reliance on rare-earth magnets.
The technology involves a new direct-drive permanent magnet generator built around ferrite magnets. The drive has also been developed without a gearbox, a traditional weak link in turbines, explains Greenspur’s executive director, Andrew Hine.
He is now in discussions with several Chinese wind turbine manufacturers, who are keen to help develop the new batteries. By becoming early adopters, he explains, and championing a competing technology, they can gain a competitive advantage over other international turbine builders.
The engagement of British SMEs provides further evidence that the UK still leads the world in tidal energy
The other offshore option is tidal. “China has been one of the early pioneers of tidal technology – it started playing around with the idea in the seventies,” says Mark Leybourne, associate director of energy consultants ITPEnergised (ITPE). “They've had varying degrees of success with the technologies that they’ve trialled (but) there’s never been a push to commercialize.”
UK-based ITPE is part of a consortium to deliver a 450kW tidal stream turbine for the China Three Gorges Corporation. The group is being led by the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC), which will be responsible for building the turbine, using designs developed by ITPE and Atlantis Resources, which developed the world's first tidal array projects in Scotland. It will operate in a test centre in the Zhoushan islands in the East China Sea.
Leybourne explains: “This project will provide our Chinese partners with a design that is superior to any of the turbines developed in China to date. The engagement of innovative British SMEs by such large Chinese state-owned conglomerates provides further evidence that the UK still leads the world in the tidal energy sector and demonstrates that the UK can capitalize on its position through the export of its expertise and leading technologies.
“This is the start of a new sector in China, so there will be future opportunities,” he continues. “The Chinese are always after something new and exciting and the next big thing … For a small British SME, that's where the value can be added and the opportunities are.”
With China on a learning curve, how long will there be a window of opportunity for UK businesses?
Wyatt says that while there is a really strong political backdrop to trade deals between China and the UK, in areas such as offshore wind, Denmark and Germany are already trading successfully with China. “In some regards, the UK has got to play a little bit of catch up,” he adds.
“Offshore wind and marine tech are the future,” says ITPE’s managing director, Jonny Clark. “For us it’s about being cutting edge. It's about working out what China wants but doesn’t have the ability to do.”
Mark Hillsdon is a Manchester-based freelance writer who writes on business and sustainability for Ethical Corporation, the Guardian, and a range of nature-based titles
including CountryFile and BBC Wildlife.
Main picture credit: Atlantis
This article is part of the in-depth briefing China’s New Dawn. See also:
offshore wind renewable energies tidal energy China University of Exeter GreenSpur Renewables ITPE China Three Gorges Corporation Atlantis Resources Dalian University of Technology Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult SNC-Lavalin Atkins