Published: Fri 08 Jul 2011. Modified: Wed 13 Jul 2011

Swedish wind power - are we ready this time?

The first wind power 'train' left 30 years ago. Now the second train is standing at the platform and Ola Carlson is worried that we will miss it again. As head of the Swedish Wind Power Technology Centre at Chalmers he regards it as a weakness that we are relinquishing the initiative, allowing other countries to move in.

"Once again we have the expertise. And once again Sweden is failing to do what is necessary. We're sitting here burning up the future and allowing the Germans and the English to take over," says Ola Carlsson. "Having said that, we haven't fallen behind entirely. In the Swedish engineering industry there are several successful suppliers and – as Ola Carlsson says – there is an abundance of Swedish components in German and Danish wind turbines. What he is referring to is offshore technology, which means building turbines where the wind blows most – out at sea. In German and Danish waters there are already wind farms whilst off the coast of Sweden expansion has come to a virtual standstill.

"The government has chosen not to set the rules in such a way that costs for offshore technology in Sweden are covered. With a political decision it would be possible to get the Swedish offshore industry up and running, following the pattern already set in Germany and the UK."

Without such a decision, there will be no domestic market to build up, which is vital to the creation of a Swedish wind power industry. Ola Carlsson remembers the last time the opportunity came along – at the beginning of the 1980s when Chalmers collaborated with Svenska Varv Vindenergi.

"We had produced a prototype for a 1.2 MW wind turbine that was ready for the market. Unfortunately, the Swedish engineering industry said no and there were no buyers."

Sweden had already decided to source its electricity elsewhere. Billions of kronor had been invested in twelve new nuclear power plants and there was an unprecedented surplus of electricity in the country. So why pay out for something we didn't need?

In Sweden, the focus from the outset was on large wind turbines. They could see the destination but not the road that led to it or the size of the funding that would be required to develop on a large scale," says Ola Carlsson.

In Denmark the situation was the opposite. They had no nuclear power and an acute energy shortage. They invested on a small scale to acquaint themselves with the technology. With a great deal of pushing and encouragement from political quarters they manage to jump on board the train to industrial development whilst the Swedes stood there, with one wind turbine, watching as the train disappeared into the distance.

But hasn't Swedish wind power research always been at the forefront?
Research is currently being brought together at the Swedish Wind Power Technology Centre at Chalmers. The new research centre was created in the autumn when the Swedish Energy Agency and industrial concerns such as General Electric Wind Energy, SKF, ABB and Göteborg Energi invested SEK 100 million for the first four years of the project. Ola Carlson has overall responsibility.

"The aim is to create more wind power production in Sweden and our task is to support this with our know-how," he says.

"What is so exciting is that we are working with the entire wind turbine, which is something we haven't done in Sweden for years. On the power side we have been conducting research the whole time whilst on the mechanical and aerodynamic side it has been up and down."

Within the framework of the Wind Centre they are also developing offshore technology. Principally, the core will be linking the power generated by the turbine to the grid. As alternating current results in considerable output losses, direct current must be used when the power is to be transferred over long distances using cables. This is difficult to control.

"The means for achieving this have yet to be fully developed."

"But it will soon be here. Wind power isn't particularly difficult. A great deal is just standard technology and nowadays it's more financial rather than technical considerations that control the development of wind power. There are thus no real obstacles to building more wind power facilities," states Ola Carlsson.

"Studies show that power production costs at the present time are generally the same regardless of the technology employed although wind power has no environmental implications. I therefore see no problem building more wind power facilities. All the forecasts show that wind power is on the increase, from China, which is currently building the most, to the USA which is in second place. The only drawback is that it has to be windy and that isn't necessarily the case everywhere in the world."

So wind power isn't the whole solution to future power supplies?
"Definitely not. What you need is a basket with lots of eggs."

What proportion of power production can wind power provide?

"In Denmark the figure at present is 20 per cent although the aim is for this figure to be raised to 50 per cent. Technically speaking this isn't a problem. Nor is it, for example, a problem in Sweden, Norway or the UK.

The Swedish Wind Power Technology Centre is still at the start-up stage. To date, Ola Carlsson has brought in six employees – five PhD students and a senior researcher. Within a year he hopes to have 10-15 employees at the Centre and at the partner companies.

When we met he was busy working on agreements regarding measurements from wind turbines. In September, Göteborg Energi's new 4 MW turbine will be ready to operate at the estuary in Gothenburg. Ola Carlsson states that it is the first prototype of a new generation of offshore wind turbines developed by General Electric. If everything goes according to plan, the turbine will be the Wind Centre's test facility.

"Imagine being able to validate your computer models against the latest and largest wind turbine. It's excellent. Göteborg Energi has also brought in a large facility, the only one of its kind in the world, which means we can simulate various faults in the electricity grid."

The new wind turbine will be higher and twice as powerful as the 120-metre turbine in the Gothenburg suburb of Gårdsten, which currently supplies the 2,000 homes in the area with domestic electricity.

"It is also in a windy place and will potentially generate three times more power."

Göteborg Energi is currently in the process of investigating the potential for erecting ten turbines of this kind at the estuary in Gothenburg.
 
Ola Carlson is excited at the prospect.
 
"They will of course be visible but at the same time they could supply around 50,000 homes with electricity. How much is that? Half of Gothenburg perhaps?

He of course hopes that politicians will come to their senses and that the know-how that will be developed at the Swedish Wind Power Technology Centre will be of benefit in new wind turbines along the coasts of Sweden. Everyone would emerge a winner.

"Studies have shown that if we had more wind power on the Swedish electricity market, the price of electricity would fall. In Sweden, water in the power station dams would be saved when it is windy. This would bring an end to complaints that the dams are empty and the price of electricity would fall," says Ola Carlsson.

He has been researching into wind power at Chalmers for more than 30 years. This was just as much down to chance as it was a general interest in technology. Having said that, he has always been fascinated by the power of the wind ever since he was child.

"I was out sailing with a friend when I was 12. Suddenly, the wind got up and the boat surged forward. That feeling has been part of me and the way I live ever since."

In the 1970s, Ola Carlson was no different from the majority of other young people and he applied to Chalmers mostly to keep all his options open. After completing his degree project, Professor Svante von Zweygbergk – who was one of first to receive a wind power grant back in 1975 – said that I ought to work on the Chalmers wind power project.

"In 1979 I was active in the nuclear power referendum, campaigning for the third alternative. At the same time I had the opportunity to work on wind power within my area of education. Somehow everything fell into place."

How has encountering a distinct lack of interest on the part of industry during the 1980s and 1990s affected him as a researcher?

"It has never been a big thing for me in my day-to-day life. If I travel to conferences I meet like-minded people. You work and socialise with people who are positive. And there has always been solid support for our research from the Swedish government."

"If I were to be a little boastful," adds Ola Carlsson, "every aspect of our research over the years has come into industrial use within five or ten years. We have always worked with the right things."

There are those who believe that the disaster in Fukushima will lead to an upsurge in wind power. Ola Carlson does not believe this will be the case.

"The wind power industry has grown by 20-30 per cent annually over the past 10 years and cannot grow any faster. It could be that the relatively few opponents are not quite as vociferous in the media as they have been." 

On a personal note, he says that he feels pleased when he looks back on his career.

"I began as a researcher in a subject area that was highly uncertain. That subject area is now set to become one of the world's leading energy sources of the future. From that point of view it feels quite cool to be involved in wind power."

Text: Lars Nicklasson

Published: Fri 08 Jul 2011. Modified: Wed 13 Jul 2011