For most in the global wind power industry, the name Envision immediately click-whirrs China’s second largest turbine maker. And this, of course, is true: the Shanghai-headquartered company does a brisk trade in wind turbines, with almost 8.5GW of its machines installed last year alone, earning it a top-four ranking on the global OEM table behind its compatriot Goldwind, Denmark’s Vestas, and the US’ GE.

But from the first day of operation in 2007, Envision — founded by CEO Lei Zhang — has evolved into batteries, operating systems for the “energy internet”, hydrogen electrolysers, and last year it opened a “net zero industrial park” (NZIP) in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, where “steel, chemicals, even shoes” are all manufactured with wind and solar power, backed up with battery and hydrogen storage and wired together with a low-carbon digital network.

The sprawling 10GW complex, which is serviced by a vast fleet of electric trucks, is the latest outgrowth of “the new industrial revolution” that is now unfolding around the world today, driven by “a new form of energy”, says Zhang, speaking exclusively to Recharge.

“Coal kicked off the first [industrial revolution], oil kicked off the second and until now we haven’t had the fundamental breakthrough on energy [needed] to kick off the third,” he states.

“Now we have renewables — and at 30% of the cost it used to be [20 years ago] — so we have that fundamental change... and once the energy transition has sufficient momentum the industrial transformation will follow.”

Zhang — who in 2014 said Envision had the aspiration of being “the Google or Amazon of the energy internet” — compares the current renewables-charged industrial revolution under way to the “second, [that of] information technology” in the 1980s.

Like the radical changes to industry and society that came with the dawning of the IT revolution that was “driven by the knowledge revolution”, he says, the global industrial transformation from fossil-powered system into a renewables-based one will be underpinned by the energy transition. “Energy is… a fundamental force in every society.”

Envision has shaped its evolving corporate development around a strategy aligned to this perspective, titled “New Five”, built on the “pillars” of New Coal, New Grid, New Oil, New Infrastructure and the New Industrial Ecosystem.

“The strategy is really two parts: one is the energy revolution now in progress and the other is the industrial revolution [coming]” — New Coal and New Oil is the energy and New Infrastructure and New Grid is the industrial part — and altogether “this will lead to the New Industrial Ecosystem”.

“We are going to continuously push the energy revolution, to develop the industrial revolution that is coming with it. To provide solutions.”

While Envision sees wind along with solar and other renewables as “one of the ‘New Coals’”, Zhang underlines it “must be intelligently connected to the grid so ‘wind-plus’, as in wind-plus-storage or wind-plus-hydrogen or wind-plus-EVs”, adding: “It is ultimately about power production.”

Wind and solar are, after all, the ‘original’ energies that will one day power the entire planet.

Similarly, he continues: “The Envision wind turbine is not about the wind turbine, it’s about energy, the modern energy system, in which, fundamentally, the original force is going to be wind and solar.

“These are, after all, the ‘original’ energies that will one day power the entire planet — [something] difficult to imagine even 10 years ago.”

All this, in the Envision vision, is in service to the renewables-fuelled industrial ecosystem that is on the fast-approaching horizon. The company’s net-zero industrial complex in Ordos is a pilot for this future, explains Zhang, with plans to export the concept to “every continent” in the world.

“Today the challenge is not only the production, it’s about what you need to do is to create more applications for off-grid renewables. So, if wind and solar power really want to further develop, they will have to ‘upgrade’ for this so as to overcome intermittency of production… through this kind of integration with ‘X’, with hydrogen,” he says, speculating that “in five years around 50%” of the wind power built will be feeding into off-grid industrial complexes.

'Building a new industrial ecosystem'

Coupling the “New Coals” of wind and solar with a power network “digitally orchestrated” by EnOS, Envision’s artificial intelligence operating system, which wires in “New Oils”, including battery and hydrogen storage, will create both the “New Grid” and ”New Infrastructure” needed for the global industrial transformations ahead, says Zhang.

“The fundamental of the [NZIP] is a new industrial ecosystem that integrates green energy production with green power consumption. Green energy density is very high. With it, we will be able to revolutionise [the energy transition beyond] fossil fuels, to make net-zero products, to decarbonise steel, aluminium, green batteries… and anything else you can think of, your shoes.”

Seven sites in Europe, Australia, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and South America are all currently being explored by Envision for future NZIPs, with the ambition to construct 100 such complexes in the next decade, removing some one billion tonnes of CO2 per year in the process.

Wind — which started it all for Envision 15 years ago — has also been also a conduit for continued internationalisation at the Chinese company.

Although the lion’s share of the 40GW of wind turbines it had installed by the end of 2021 have been in its home patch, Envision has won strategic orders in France and Spain, and recently landed a key deal in the hotly contested India market, earlier this year announcing plans to double its nacelle and blade production to meet 2GW in new developer agreements.

This growing global ambition is, in some ways, an extension of a well-developed wanderlust that led the Chinese company to have its main R&D hub housed in its Shanghai headquarters and another at its factory complex in Jiangyin, but also an innovation centre in Silkeborg, Denmark, along with is a battery-storage research lab in Osaka, Japan; a cloud service centre in Houston; and a digital innovation centre in California’s Silicon Valley.

Reflecting on the changes and challenges of shape-shifting within the rapidly moving energy transition, Zhang says “practice and experience” suggest the strategy devised by Envision “has, in terms of direction, been right – the ‘New Five’, I think are right”.

“This vision has led us to the new industrial ecosystem, a system that has the fundamental advance of renewables, both because of cost and efficiency.

“And this is with a lot of people on this planet still with a narrow view, a suspicion, of the green energy revolution,” he says.

“In another eight years’ time, we will see a world that has been fundamentally changed, not only the energy [sector and system] but... everywhere — net zero industrial parks, residential homes, people eating net-zero synthetic meat and drinking net-zero Coke, driving EVs or cars powered by biofuels…”

After a summer when unprecedented heat waves, floods and forest fires dominated the headlines, Zhang’s words ring with an unlikely hopefulness, despite the lack of momentum in global climate circles.

“You may say I am an optimist in my views [of how quickly the global energy transition can accelerate in the coming decades], but I believe I am being realistic.

“We are already in the energy revolution, but we just don’t know it,” concludes Zhang. “If you look back 100 years later... and ask: ‘When did the green industrial revolution start? 2000? 2005? When the first industrial-scale solar panels were produced? When wind energy had been achieved [at a price] below fossil fuel? When [lithium-ion] batteries had been scaled up to macro level? It is happening faster than we know.”