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‘It's crazy to expect the energy transition to be cost-neutral’: Stiesdal

Politicians are disingenuous when they delay climate action due to cost fears or argue for more research, wind-power pioneer tells Recharge

Many politicians — and some sections of the energy industry — are making two major mistakes when it comes to renewables policy, wind-power pioneer Henrik Stiesdal tells Recharge.

The first is the “illogical” idea that there should be no extra cost associated with the energy transition, and the second is the mistaken notion that climate solutions will become significantly more affordable through research alone.

“Sometimes it annoys me that it’s inherently assumed that there should be no cost associated [with the energy transition] and there I think, ‘hmm, let's see’,” Stiesdal says.

"Who says that when we are saving the planet from the dramatic risks of climate change that it has to be, by default, at no cost?"

“It’s like knowing that we can now treat many diseases more efficiently than before, but somebody then saying, ‘great — but there must be no added cost’.

“Or think of the improvements that we have had over the last century, in education and infrastructure and communication and so on. Imagine then that for each such improvement, [for example], universal schooling or the establishment of universities, or the transition from gravel roads to highways, or the introduction of clean water supply and proper sanitation to everybody, or any other of the improvements that we now take for granted, the decision makers had been saying — well, we have sympathy for the intent, and it would indeed be an improvement — but there must be no added cost.

“If they or we had taken that attitude, we would have gotten nowhere near where we are now in in quality of life for all of us. But that is precisely what many politicians and some industry players say when it comes to the green transition.

“Come on, that's not how life is. What's the logic of that? Who says there should be no cost?

“Who says that when we are saving the planet from the dramatic risks of climate change that it has to be, by default, at no cost? Why should it be, if we want to solve the biggest problem of humanity?

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“And that's why I sometimes get a little worried that this question of cost keeps arising when it comes to energy, and that it is often considered a legitimate requirement. But we would not find it legitimate when it came to fundamental health or education or infrastructure.”

Fortunately, it might well be, Stiesdal adds, that renewable energy backed up with storage will soon be cheaper than any fossil-fuel-fired power.

“However, there's the other scenario that says, well, there might be some additional costs to society — even though that cost will create jobs and stimulate business. Then your electricity does become more expensive and that's where we can say, ‘yes, but who said that that was completely illegal or unreasonable?’"

One of Stiesdal’s current projects is to create carbon-negative aviation fuel by 2025, which may work out to be less expensive than existing highly polluting jet fuel.

“Again, you could ask, does it need to be at that [cheaper] price? Wouldn’t it be okay if your flight ticket cost €100 more because of a higher fuel price, and then you wouldn't worry so much about what the climate effect could be? But sometimes one gets the impression that in this cruel world it always has to be as low priced as possible.”

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Another example he gives is that wind and solar power in China is very cheap, but that the country struggles to get all that variable energy into the grid without curtailment.

“The biggest issue [in China] is intermittency, it's not the cost. So that’s why I think that if we could get to the dream scenario of cheap baseload renewables... then the question of intermittency will go away, and nobody will want coal or gas anymore.

“But in the time until we get there, you can say, ‘well isn't it fair enough that there's a cost attached?’. It’s a no-brainer that initially there will be a need for subsidies for storage. But in the long run, we would have to be weaned off subsidies for storage, just like we have done with wind energy.”

Stiesdal also warns against those who argue that we should focus our efforts on technology research, rather than subsidising existing technologies.

“There is the inherent issue that the concern about the climate is to some extent tribal,” Stiesdal tells Recharge. “It started on the left side of the political spectrum and therefore there are people on the right side who say, ‘It's a project of the Reds... well, it's their project, not our project, then it can't be good, then we must oppose the project’.

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“With young people increasingly protesting against climate change, it is getting more difficult in most countries to oppose action against climate change, and politicians who are, for tribal reasons, against such action can't now really get away with saying, ‘we’re not worried about climate change’. Instead they often say, ‘It's really serious, but we should not deploy too much wind or solar PV now, we should do fundamental research instead. That's where the big solutions are’.

“But in many cases, this is just a delaying tactic, promoted with the hidden intent to oppose action on climate change. What they completely underestimate or disregard is that what has brought down the cost of renewables is not research. It is innovation and industrialisation.

“Of course, we have all benefited tremendously from research, both at leading players like DTU [Technical University of Denmark] and NREL [the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory] and at hundreds of other universities, research institutions and industrial players, don't get me wrong. They have contributed very significantly to the industry development and competence, they have spearheaded many key improvements in our industry, and we need as much research as we can get. But the real quantum leaps in the cost reductions have been driven by volume.

“I visited [the US government’s] Sandia National Laboratories back in 1978 and looked at solar PV. From a technological point of view some of those panels were no different from the solar panels of today — but their cost per watt was 100 times today’s cost. And it's not because 99% of the cost went away as a result of fundamental research; the technology as such is unchanged. The 99% went away as a result of volume — industrialisation and mass production.

To a large extent, the same applies in wind power. Therefore, when it comes to storage and where prices will go, the real game changer is to get volumes on. That's why I focus a lot on doing modular things that can be made in big volumes, because I know from experience that that is the key to the cost reductions we still need. And that is why we need as much volume as we can as soon as possible, in wind power, in solar PV, and in energy storage”

The genius of Henrik Stiesdal

Henrik Stiesdal has been responsible for some of the most important inventions in the wind power industry over a 40-year career, building his first turbine by hand on his parents’ farm in 1978.

His turbine design — comprising upwind rotors, automatic yawing and two-speed generators — was later sold to Vestas, then a manufacturer of farm wagons and truck cranes, helping the company become the world’s leading turbine maker.

Stiesdal was responsible for the world’s first offshore wind farm, Vindeby, in Denmark in 1991, and the marinisation of wind turbines to enable them to survive at sea. Later, as chief technology officer (CTO) at OEM Bonus Energy, he designed the first one-piece turbine blade and then the first variable-speed turbine. Then as CTO of Siemens Wind Power, which purchased Bonus in 2004, he was in charge of the direct-drive technology that eliminated the then-unreliable gearbox that had become the Achilles heel of the wind sector.

He retired from Siemens in 2014, and has since formed his own eponymous innovation company Stiesdal A/S, which aims to provide cost-effective climate-fighting solutions to the energy and transport sectors.

The company is split into three subsidiaries: Stiesdal Offshore Technologies, whose Tetra project creates cheap floating turbine foundations based on industrialized manufacturing; Stiesdal Storage Technologies, which is developing a hot-rock thermal energy storage technology called GridScale that can enable 24-hour wind and solar power; and Stiesdal Fuel Technologies, which is developing SkyClean — the carbon-negative jet fuel, and is also looking into creating cheaper electrolysers for green hydrogen and small-scale ammonia production facilities to act as a carrier for that hydrogen.

The stakeholders in Stiesdal A/S are all business friends of Stiesdal, and the shareholder agreement states that the number one priority of the company is to fight climate change; the second is to create blue-collar jobs; the third is to “have fun with people we like”; and the fourth is “to make some money, if the other three can be met”, Stiesdal told Recharge last year.

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