Wind's tectonic plates have shifted this year as Chinese firms have overtaken western rivals in the race to develop the world’s largest offshore wind turbines.
On 13th January, Mingyang Smart Energy unveiled its MySE 18.X-28X offshore turbine platform, which has headline capacity of 18MW and gives Mingyang the potential to go “beyond 18MW”. MingYang said it is as tall as a 70-storey skyscraper and could handle extreme offshore conditions, including level-17 typhoons.
This news came a week after fellow Chinese company CSSC Haizhuang announced its own 18MW turbine, the H260-18MW, at an event at Dongying City Offshore Wind Power Industrial Park in Shangdong Province.
These machines also mean Mingyang and CSSC Haizhuang have overtaken Dongfang Electric and Goldwind, which announced their own 16MW turbine platforms last July and November respectively. Goldwind developed its super-sized machine with China Three Gorges, and Three Gorges chairman Lei Mingshan said it showed that China is now leading the global offshore turbine race rather than following western rivals.
Western firms have giant turbines of their own, of course: Vestas, Siemens Gamesa and GE Renewable Energy have turbines with headline capacity of 15MW, 14MW and 14MW respectively. These machines are all proving attractive to offshore wind developers: RWE last month picked Siemens Gamesa to supply its flagship SG14-236DD machines for the 1GW Thor offshore wind farm in Denmark.
Yet the emergence of the largest offshore wind turbines in China must give that trio pause for thought after a difficult results season. Publicly, though, they are sanguine.
Henrik Andersen, CEO at Vestas, said in an interview last month that wind turbines are big enough for now and that the greatest challenge for manufacturers in the next decade is by increasing output, including by making turbines more efficient. We understand the argument, although increasing the size of the turbine remains one of the best ways to increase their output. It is also only two years since Andersen was himself unveiling a 15MW offshore turbine that was then the world’s largest.
European firms are desperately hoping for more help from the EU for the wind supply chain as it seeks to respond to the US Inflation Reduction Act.
The emergence of four of the largest offshore wind turbine platforms in China reflects a few facts that western manufacturers cannot afford to ignore.
First, Chinese wind turbine makers are operating with larger profit margins than their western rivals, which means they can invest more in the research and development that is crucial to developing bigger and better and machines. We looked at this trend in this piece from September 2022, based on analysis from the Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis, and how it could affect global markets.
Second, Chinese firms can also learn lessons from the huge amount of offshore wind capacity that is being installed at home. The Asian superpower now has almost half of global installed offshore wind capacity, with 12.7GW installed in 2021 and a further 6.8GW in the first six months of 2022. This gives Chinese manufacturers an enviable project pipeline that they know they can dominate, and insights into how their machines are performing so that they can make improvements that further boost headline capacity.
And third, the combination of investment in research and a fast-growing market gives them the ability to be more ambitious about their plans. We will need to see how their machines work in practice, but that is true for those of western manufacturers too. It currently feels inevitable that the first 20MW offshore turbine will come from China.
Some of this will not unduly worry western manufacturers. They know Chinese firms will dominate installations in China, because it’s how it has been in many sectors including onshore wind. Western manufacturers have also been able to focus efforts on winning deals in Europe and the US, as well as new Asian markets.
But the most interesting aspect is how the emergence of 18MW Chinese turbines will affect the dynamics of installations in Asia-Pacific, including new markets opening up in southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand and India; and the potential of those firms to make inroads if countries in the Middle East and North Africa look to use offshore wind farms to run power-to-X operations. These are the battlegrounds where we will get to see Chinese and western turbine makers go head-to-head with giant turbines.
Some countries will have reservations about handing vital infrastructure contracts to Chinese companies – but that will not stifle those firms’ international ambitions.