Philip Totaro’s company Totaro & Associations works with renewable energy companies to develop new products and technologies. Specifically, he gets involved in business risk mitigation and intellectual property due diligence activities when clients want to introduce a new product. Totaro spent the early part of his career in aerospace & defense and more recently in power generation and renewables, which gives him significant experience with composite materials and manufacturing.
What is the main focus of the wind energy sector and how are composites involved?
Wind turbines have become one of the most cost competitive forms of renewable energy production, and they are striving to become cost competitive with conventional forms of power generation like coal and natural gas by reducing acquisition costs as well as operational/maintenance costs. Over the past 30 years the cost of energy production from wind has been reduced from ~0.90 cents / kwhr to ~0.06 cents / kwhr according to an annual report published by Lawrence Berkley National Labs. This has been the result of both policy and innovation.
Wind turbine blades have been one of the most heavily innovated components of a wind turbine during that time, and composite material use in those blades has grown substantially. From formation of structural components such as the spar or box beam to the use of skin panels to provide torsional stiffness, the impact of composites has been to enhance reliability and reduce weight.
What do you see driving the industry right now?
Globally, what has helped the wind industry has been policy, typically in the form of mandates (like a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) for renewable energy deployment coupled with incentives, which come in the form of tax breaks or production credits for developers and utilities. The U.S. wind turbine industry is in an interesting state right now given the pending expiration of the production tax credit, along with lingering effects of the credit crisis, as well as an over-capacity of production for blades, nacelles, and other components. The glut of manufacturing capacity was the result of the tax incentives provided to anyone willing to invest the capital in opening up a factory domestically. The result was a majority of new factories opened by foreign-led firms intent on creating a domestic manufacturing footprint to gain market share and comply with domestic content production requirements to receive some of the tax incentives. That being said, the industry continues to innovate because the single largest driver is the desire to displace conventional forms of energy production and at least a 2 cents / kwhr reduction in the production cost of energy is required in order to make that a reality. Since demand for wind turbines in the domestic industry has stagnated recently, the major OEMs are focusing on cost out on their existing platforms as well future technology development with early stage R&D, which is three to five years from commercialization at this point.