International Airborne Wind Energy Conference – Insights from key players

Next week will see the opening of the 9th edition of the International Airborne Wind Energy Conference, we caught up with two key contributors, Chris Vermillion and Lorenzo Fagiano, to hear their insights on the sector and the wider energy industry.

Chris Vermillion, Associate Professor at North Carolina State University:

Your work covers a broad scope of wind energy research, what are the most recent developments or trends you’ve seen that indicate accelerated change in the sector?

One of the most exciting developments over the past decade in wind energy has been seen in dramatically reduced capital and operational expenses associated with conventional towered systems, particularly those that are land-based. Of course, that means that the prospect of airborne wind energy systems competing with land-based towered systems is very challenging and perhaps not the proper focus of airborne wind energy at this time. On the other hand, wind energy installations often remain impractical or uneconomical in remote areas that presently rely on diesel fuel at premium costs, in addition to deep-water offshore locations. From a market standpoint, this has further motivated the targeting of these latter markets for short- and long-term adoption of airborne wind energy systems. What is truly exciting from the perspective of airborne wind energy is the fact that a combination of increased technological maturity, advanced control system development, and long-duration demonstrations has dramatically reduced the risks associated with deploying airborne wind energy systems, even in spite of the failures of a few prototypes. So what we have now is a technology that has always been projected to be highly cost-competitive with fossil fuel solutions in remote markets, where the risk of adopting that technology has been reduced to the point where the risk-reward balance is becoming very favorable.

Energy security and transition has been very topical recently, have you witnessed a higher level of interest in renewable energy from regulators or other relevant actors?

Energy security has long been an extremely important topic in the United States, which has come to the forefront of national discussion as a result of recent global events. The appropriate mechanism for achieving energy security has also long been an active topic of debate, with significant division regarding whether emphasis on increased renewables or increased extraction of conventional reserves represents the optimal solution. However, the majority of U.S. states have adopted renewable energy portfolio standards, several of which require 100 percent clean energy by 2045. There is a significant push for R&D funding to support this transition, although this push is presently up against significant oppositional pressure within the government.

And in airborne specifically?

It is unclear how much of the U.S. and global standards for clean energy production will translate into accelerated adoption of airborne wind energy, particularly given my earlier comments that airborne wind energy system may not often represent attractive solutions to land-based turbines. On the other hand, increased overall emphasis on renewables will lead, at least in the long term, to increased R&D funding, which can be leveraged to support airborne wind. Furthermore, a significant focus of renewable energy efforts within the U.S. focus on offshore wind energy — for example, multiple leases have been executed off the Atlantic coast, specifically adjacent to Virginia and North Carolina, for the development of offshore wind. For deep-water offshore wind energy extraction, airborne wind energy likely represents a long-term cost-competitive solution as compared with floating offshore wind turbines.

Where do you see the most immediate challenges for the airborne wind sector?

At this point, there are clear markets for which the cost of energy from airborne wind fall below the next best competitor technology — the key to adoption, in my opinion, is to reduce the risk, both real and perceived, such that the risk-reward balance makes the adoption of airborne wind energy attractive for these customers. In addition to pursuing long-term demonstration projects, reduced perceived risk can be obtained through the standardization and sharing of tools and reference model designs, something that is being actively pursued through the newly formed IEA Wind task on airborne wind energy. This level of standardization will enable the reduction in perceived risk for projects that have matured to the long-term prototyping stage, in addition to providing new members of the airborne wind energy community with the tools and standards necessary to get their projects off the ground — no pun intended — much more quickly.

AWEC is a unique opportunity for the industry to gather and exchange insights and network. Are there specific elements of the programme you are most looking forward to?

As a control systems person at heart, I am of course excited to hear about new control and optimization technologies for airborne wind energy systems. However, on a more general level, I’m excited to connect with the many very bright members of our community who have made great strides in terms of prototyping and commercialization, which I’ve only been able to see from a distance due to the travel restrictions that had been previously imposed during the COVID pandemic.

Lorenzo  Fagiano, Associate Professor at Politecnico di Milano

This is the 9th edition of the  AWEC I wonder if you could provide an overview of how you have seen the event develop?

I attended the 2010, 2012, 2013, 2017 and 2019 editions and I saw the event growing from a workshop among researchers and small startups to a highly participated event attracting also other stakeholders that are not directly or immediately involved. I think the turning point has been AWEC 2013 in Berlin, when industry participation increased significantly as well as academic activities thanks to a number of funded projects. Overall, I think AWEC has grown in parallel with the continuous average increase of funding in the field and the decrease of the gap to commercialization

And what are the most recent developments or trends you’ve seen that indicate accelerated change in the sector?

  1. Increasing interest by major companies
  2. First commercial systems
  3. Aggregation of players and convergence to a few technology concepts
  4. Inclusion of AWE as topic in EU and US research funding programmes

Energy security and transition has been very topical recently, have you witness a higher level of interest in renewable energy from regulators or other relevant actors?

Definitely. For example, in Italy the green transition is the most important topic in the Recovery Plan. The current govt. made a new Ministry for that, named Ministry of Ecological Transition, merging  the former Ministry of Environment with the energy sector of the Ministry of Economic Development

And in airborne specifically?

There is always interest in this technology because it’s fascinating in its conceptual simplicity. Such an interest is from time to time affected by up and downs of specific companies, but on average it’s growing together with the sector’s accomplishments, primarily on reliability and power output but also the transformation of companies from small start-ups to structured, larger ones.

Where do you see the most immediate challenges for the airborne wind sector?

Keep demonstrating reliability of operation and power generation to clear any remaining doubts about technical feasibility and competitiveness. This would be needed to attract major investments by large companies that are by nature very conservative and prefer to wait for the risk to decrease in order to buy the technology and complete its industrialization.

A challenge is also to train people that would be ready to support a major upscaling of the industry if the funding increases.

AWEC is a unique opportunity for the industry to gather and exchange insights and network. Are there specific elements of the programme you are most looking forward to?

All sessions presenting company developments, all time slots for networking and exchange, and the round tables

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