What next for SeaAngel and V164?

The announcement of the joint venture (JV) led many to wonder about the future of MHI’s 7MW SeaAngel turbine, which uses a proprietary digital-displacement hydraulic transmission (DDT) system — a very different machine to Vestas’ 8MW V164, which will have a hybrid geared/direct-drive drivetrain.

To the surprise of some, the SeaAngel programme is carrying on regardless, with a first full-scale prototype about to be installed at SSE’s test site in Hunterston, Scotland.

“The development continues on its original trajectory — that is, it has not been negatively impacted by the JV,” says Mitsubishi Power Systems Europe (MPSE) senior manager for renewables Pete Clusky. “It makes best sense to continue developing it until it reaches a stage of technology readiness.”

MHI clearly thinks it is on to something with DDT — a concept first hatched by Scottish renewable-energy veteran Stephen Salter and later fine-tuned by Edinburgh start-up Artemis Intelligent Power, which was bought by MHI subsidiary MPSE in 2010. Continuing with the programme may give MHI leverage and options as offshore demand ramps up in earnest, and it also has the opportunity to push SeaAngel within the JV — particularly from April 2016, when it has the option of taking a majority stake in the venture.

MHI officials believe that part of DDT’s attraction is its potential for scaleability.

“We believe in the future that it will be easier to scale up [with DDT technology rather than geared or direct-drive transmissions] for turbines larger than 7MW,” says Clusky.

Under the terms of the Vestas-MHI agreement, the JV will be based on Vestas technologies, while at a later stage it will “explore the possibilities of integrating the MHI hydraulic DDT technology into the 8MW platform”, according to the joint statement. This, it goes on, “would make the JV positioned to offer a product line-up variety that best suits customer demands”.

However, Vestas officials are quick to qualify this. The JV’s new boss, Jens Tommerup, tells Recharge: “In offshore, technologies have to be thoroughly proven and tested, and this needs to happen as closely as possible with customers.”

Recharge understands that Vestas carried out due diligence on Artemis at the same time as MHI. The report, written by an industry gearbox specialist, pointed out a number of potential drawbacks to the DDT technology, including its mechanical complexity and substantial use of oil. Vestas officials decided the technology was not for them, while MHI decided to buy.

The rest is history, but considerable scepticism about DDT remains, both within Vestas and the wider wind industry.

Meanwhile, Tommerup says that development of the “game-changing” V164-8.0MW turbine is “going well” and that Vestas is on course to deploy the first full prototype in early 2014. The turbine could even go into serial production by the first quarter of 2015, if orders are forthcoming, he adds.

What is not clear is where large-scale production of the V164 will take place. The first pre-series units will be produced at Vestas’ Lindø site in Munkebo, Denmark, with the first blades built on the Isle of Wight, southern England.

If it wins orders from UK projects, Vestas will consider setting up a plant in the country again, after it abandoned plans for a huge facility at Sheerness, southern England, in June 2012.

Tommerup says that the company “has options”. But if the JV does bring the orders in, lead times for planning and constructing a plant mean it will have to move fast.