Wind energy in the developing world

The Western world’s longstanding dominance in the burgeoning wind industry is now under attack from Suzlon, an Indian wind turbine manufacturer that has been rapidly catching up to GE and top European European wind companies since its founding only 11 years ago.

Suzlon is the unlikely creation of a group of brothers who used to run a textile business. Frustrated with the unreliable Indian power system, and unable to make do with an imported German wind turbine, the brothers began building and maintaining turbines themselves. Today, Suzlon is the fifth largest manufacturer worldwide in terms of installed megawatt capacity.

“Technology leapfrogging” is the name given to the phenomenon in which developing countries skip the intermediate phases of technological development that industrialized nations went through, and instead leap right to the cutting edge, adapting business models and products to local needs in the process.

The most widely cited example of technology leapfrogging is the rapid spread of cell phones throughout the developing world. Many of the nations in which cell phones are now prevalent never had a functioning fixed-line telephone system in the first place, both because the infrastructure for fixed line is expensive to develop and maintain, and because monopolistic or state-run phone companies never had any real incentive to invest.

Some of the same dynamics appear to be playing out in India. Electricity boards are owned by state governments under political pressure to keep rates low. The result is an underfinanced and unreliable power system that suffers frequent outages.

Businesses have been forced to adapt by seeking alternative power supplies, and with oil prices high wind has filled some of the gap. According to the article, “roughly 70 percent of the demand for wind turbines in India comes from industrial users seeking alternatives to relying on the grid.”

Demand for turbines is surging in both India in China, which respectively saw 48% and 65% growth in the number of installations in the past year. Worldwide, turbine manufacturers have been unable to keep up with demand. Suzlon recently opened their first factory in Minnesota.

Is there any hope that China and India will leapfrog past the last century’s fossil fuel-powered industrialization directly to a more sustainable economy? Sadly, the answer is probably not. The enormous growth in demand for energy is such that coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, continues to loom large in their future.

(Update: further thoughts on technology leapfrogging, looking at particular at the demand side of the energy equation.)

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  1. Anonymous - October 4, 2006

    This is a great story…any use of environmentally safer practices should be lauded. Its too bad that, like the US, China & India will be driven first and foremost by economic considerations and not by choices that are future thinking.

  2. Anonymous - October 6, 2006

    As a biologist in California I recognize the fine balance between the need for renewable energy and the protection of our state’s magnificent biolgical diversity. A topic rarely mentioned in the wind energy development arena, except amongst biologist perhaps, is the mounting toll this form of energy has on migratory birds and bats as well as other species protected under the state endangered species act. Although wind energy appears to be a wonderful “green” energy, it has a “red” or mortality price tag that needs to be recognized by the public. Please provide a balanced perspective when promoting “green” energy and mention that wind energy as well as others have a biological price tag too.

  3. Adam Stein - October 7, 2006

    Actually, my general impression is that the bird issue gets a little too much attention. Because of problems at some earlier wind installations in the U.S., most non-experts I talk to now seem to associate wind turbines with bird death. Wildlife impacts are of course a very serious consideration when contructing a new wind facility, but it is also an issue that developers have learned how to address much more effectively than in the past. New wind facilities have far fewer problems than, for example, the notorious installation at Altamont Pass.
    And, of course, constructing new coal plants isn’t exactly a boon to local wildlife…

  4. Anonymous - December 16, 2006

    Adam, Your understanding that wind energy developers now address wildlife impacts more effectively than in the past, and that “new wind facilities have far fewer problems than…Altamont Pass” is sadly mistaken. The level of wildlife mortality – on a per turbine or a per MW basis – is far greater now at wind energy facilities being installed in the Appalachians than so far recorded at wind plants in the western U.S. Bats are disproportionately bearing the brunt of this impact. See: .

    Furthermore, the impacts associated with forest fragmentation from constructing wind energy facilities in the eastern mountains may represent far larger impact from an ecological perspective than the direct wildlife mortiality associated with collisions with wind turbines. Check out: .

    Lastly, your notion that the impacts of new coal plants need to be kept in mind when considering the impacts from wind turbines fails to recognize that wind energy has no chance of preventing the need for new sources of generation in many areas – particularly in the eastern US where demand for electricity greatly exceeds the potential wind energy supply. Also, the generation of electricity from wind turbines is very low in the summer months when regional and local demand is greatest. Since the periods of peak demand for electricity (both seasonal and daily) in many US grid regions do not correspond well with optimal kWh production of wind turbines, the pressure to construct new power plants to keep pace with rising peak-period demands will not be significantly reduced by wind turbines.

  5. Question Consumption - December 20, 2006

    In response to anonymous- in order to fairly compare the “greeness” of wind energy to other current sources, we would need to know the numbers of wildlife negatively affected by business as usual energy production. How many fish are poisoned from the mercury discharged from coal power plants, how are rivers and streams impacted by releasing tons of particulate and other harmful chemicals from coal fired plants? I agree that every technology needs to be monitored for any negative impacts so that we can improve on how that technology is used in the future, but on a net net basis, my non expert view is that renewable energy is a much better way to go than our current useage. also, to address the concerns of the viability of wind power in the Northeast, I would say you are correct. But, keep in mind that their are other renewable technologies for addressing that. Perhaps wind is not appropriate, but a mix of solar, wind, biomass, or geothermal could. Each area must determine what is the most appropriate mix based upon their unique geographical situation. I realize that this thread is focused on wind, which is why I would guess you did not mention any of these other alternatives. Either way, I am glad to see we are all thinking about this and trying to move forward in positive directions.

  6. Justin Barnes - December 20, 2006

    A few points Anonymous. I happen to agree with Adam on his assertion that the ‘wildlife mortality’ angle has been a bit overplayed. I’ve been studying the local impacts of large wind projects in the United States and abroad for the last several years and it seems to me that instances of significant bird and bat mortality are comparatively rare. Adam mentions Altamont and you mention the Buffalo Mountain project in Tennessee as examples of wind projects that have experienced wildlife related problems. To these I would add a couple of the West Texas projects where significant bat mortality has been observed. These problems are certainly worthy of discussion and need to be addressed. However, I question your inference that wind plants are as destructive to the environment as fossil fuel generation because these types of problems are the exception rather than the rule. For this reason, groups like the Audubon Society and the Isaac Walton League frequently endorse wind farms through the state public comment and regulatory approval process. This is not to say that they are always supportive of commercial wind projects (e.g., the Forward Wind Energy Center in Wisconsin), but it does show that there is public review of the environmental impacts of almost all large wind projects and a general level of support from independent environmental organizations. Typically, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the state DNR weigh in as well at some point during the regulatory approval process. The result of this is that regulatory approval is often contingent upon the completion of wildlife mortality studies, some of which extend into the first years of project operation. Thus there is regulatory oversight to wind farm development and because wildlife mortality is a hot-button issue with wind farms, it cannot fail to be addressed.

    On your last comment, I again think you are missing the point. It is no secret that the societal demand for electricity will require new power plants. This will occur regardless of whether wind energy is or is not part of the mix. But would it not be better if a portion of this new production capacity was provided by wind energy rather than coal? The benefits of providing some electricity from wind energy remain even if more fossil fuels also come on-line. Furthermore, wind energy facilities are base-load facilities, just like most modern coal-fired plants. When they are operating, regardless of what time of year it is, they subtract from the amount of coal based electricity that needs to be produced. Peaking capacity will still be needed, but since coal plants are relatively inflexible in terms of electricity output, peaking units are most often natural gas turbines, fossil fuel, but still preferable to coal. Ultimately, the place of wind energy as a significant contributor to our electricity supply depends on your definition of significant. A five or ten percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. power sector would be equivalent to a 50 or 75 percent reduction in total emissions from some countries (if Texas was a country for instance, it would be the eighth largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world). I consider this to be significant and several state and national studies indicate that a 20-25% wind energy penetration into the electricity system is feasible from a technical standpoint. As for electricity on the East Coast, you might be interested in some things Willit Kempton (Univ. of Delaware) has written on the subject. You may not agree with him (I am not sure I am completely sold on some of his ideas) but he does posit some creative scenarios for reducing greenhouse gas emissions with renewable energy.

  7. jay - January 17, 2009

    this information is not sufficient can u give me more information regarding wind firm like
    -cost cosideration and site selecion
    -cost of different part of wind turbine
    -on going project in india