TOKYO — General Electric is set to go head-to-head with Hitachi as the U.S. giant returns to Japan’s wind turbine market with a high-tech, big data-backed system.
After supplying 300 or so wind turbines, GE withdrew from the Japanese market in 2007 because of the implementation of tougher building standards and doubts about profitability. The company refocused its attention on Japan following the introduction of feed-in tariffs that guarantee generous, fixed purchase prices for renewable-source power.
Just for Japan
In recent visits to Japan, Anne McEntee, president and CEO of GE’s renewable energy business, urged wind farm operators to adopt a Japan-specific model developed by carefully studying the country’s weather conditions.
Increasing power output at locations with low average wind speeds was a challenge that GE Power & Water set for itself upon returning to Japan, according to Hideyuki Onishi, the company’s Japanese representative.
Though average wind speeds at many wind farms in Japan are slow, turbines must be able to withstand strong winds brought on by typhoons, as well as turbulence caused by sudden changes in wind direction and speed.
Typical turbines found on Japanese wind farms generate 2,000 kilowatts of power, with blade sections measuring 80-90 meters in diameter. GE’s new model features a blade section with a diameter of 103 meters and power output of 2,850 kilowatts. To support the bigger blades, it has a more robust hub.
The new model also takes advantage of data the company has accumulated from its 22,000 wind turbines operating around the globe, including information on wind velocity and direction, blade movement, temperature and atmospheric pressure. As a result, the high-tech model is able to adjust its blades to fully harvest even low-speed winds, resulting in a roughly 5% increase in power output. Additional benefits include reduced load when winds are strong and extended product life.
In Europe, offshore wind farms are popular, but GE is focusing on onshore wind farms in Japan for now.
The Japan Wind Power Association forecasts that Japan’s total wind power output will reach 28.8 million kilowatts by fiscal 2030, with slightly more than 70% of the electricity generated by onshore facilities. “There is still much room to develop” onshore locations, Ohnishi said.
He is optimistic about GE’s reentry into the Japanese market, saying, “We can win a new contract by the end of the year.”
Service vs. technology
GE’s biggest rival in Japan is Hitachi, which is estimated to control a little more than 50% of the wind turbine market.
“We are not surprised by GE’s reentry,” said Manabu Takamoto, a general manager at Hitachi who works in power and industrial systems.
“We will differentiate ourselves through the strength of Japanese-made products and broader and better maintenance services,” Takamoto added.
Hitachi’s wind turbines feature its proprietary downwind blade design. Putting the blade section downwind from the support post makes it possible for the turbine to catch upward winds more efficiently. This means better power-generating efficiency on mountainsides and hills, where many of Japan’s wind farms are located.
Having wind-measuring equipment upwind from the blade section also allows for more accurate readings.
Hitachi is currently developing a 5,000kw model, with an eye toward promoting it for use at offshore wind farms, but the company plans to continue promoting a 2,000kw model for onshore facilities. It has begun testing a model with a blade section 86 meters in diameter to add to its existing 80-meter model. The company is also considering developing a model with higher resistance to strong winds.
Hitachi aims to take advantage of its group business network, which stretches from Hokkaido to Okinawa, to provide maintenance services at more than 30 locations. Because shorter down time leads to higher profitability for wind farmers, “We will increase the number of service bases near customers’ locations, making the most of our group firms’ branch offices,” Takamoto said.
“We like the fact that Hitachi offers reasonable prices despite its top market share,” an official of a wind farm operator said.
Japanese wind turbines were reported to be 10-20% more expensive than imports, but the yen’s depreciation since last year is estimated to have mostly eliminated the price gap.
This means the battle between Hitachi and GE will likely come down to which customers value more — Hitachi’s better maintenance services or GE’s use of big data and other technologies.
Filed under: 9.Energy