Another Tipping Point For Coal: Big Oil Eyeballs Big Wind

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The cost of wind power has been sinking like a stone, and it looks like you ain’t seen nothing yet. Several major oil companies have been dipping into the wind marketplace, bringing with them the kind of experience and supply chain efficiencies that could help accelerate the downward trend.

In an interesting twist, at least one of those companies — Saudi Aramco, no less — has gone out of its way to highlight wind technology as a matter of national pride.

Big Oil, Meet Big Wind

CleanTechnica has been following the trail of oil into the wind market, particularly in the offshore sector. One notable example occurred earlier this year when Norway’s Statoil topped a pool of competitive bidders to gain a federal lease for a high profile offshore wind site, in the waters off New York City.

Royal Dutch Shell is another company venturing into the offshore wind market. It was in the running for another federal lease off the coast of North Carolina, though the winning bid went to Avangrid Renewables.

That’s an interesting development, because Avangrid is under the Iberdrola umbrella. Iberdrola is one of the largest electric companies in the world, and it has been shifting rapidly into renewables and away from coal.

Last week Bloomberg noted the trend toward offshore wind with this observation:

The oil companies have many reasons to move into the industry. They’ve spent decades building oil projects offshore, and that business is winding down in some areas where older fields have drained.

A growing consensus about the global acceleration of renewable energy development is another factor motivating oil companies to shift focus.

Bloomberg also observes that government regulated electricity markets provide offshore wind developers with a more stable, predictable revenue stream.

Even ExxonMobil is taking baby steps in the clean energy direction, though so far it’s more smoke than fire.

Big Engineering Joins The Renewable Energy Rush

One milestone in the oil-to-wind rush occurred last December, when oil giant Saudi Aramco announced the delivery of its first wind turbine, which will also be the first commercial turbine installed in its home country Saudi Arabia.

General Electric is the manufacturer. That’s significant because GE is a legacy company with deep roots in conventional power generation, and it has been front and center in the clean energy revolution.

In its announcement of the new turbine, Saudi Aramco emphasized the skills that fossil companies bring to the renewable energy table:

“…This milestone has been made possible with the skills and knowledge Saudi Aramco has attained over decades as the Kingdom’s reliable supplier of energy and those of our partner, GE, as a wind industry leader.”

The new wind turbine is just the tip of the renewable energy iceberg for GE. To cite just one example, GE recently announced that in 2016 its onshore wind division booked $3 billion in orders totaling more than 7 gigawatts.

Last year the company also embarked on the world’s first combined wind power and pumped hydro energy storage system.

Lockheed Martin is another fossil-centric company that is transitioning to renewables. One particularly interesting project is a thermal conversion system for harvesting ocean energy. The company has been noodling around with that technology since the 1970s, and it ramped up the effort in 2009 with an assist from the US Navy.

Many other icons of fossil energy engineering have been transitioning into renewables. The auto industry is one obvious example, where generations-old companies like Ford and GM have been forging ahead with EV tech.

Tooting The Clean Energy Horn

Speaking of that new Saudi Aramco wind turbine, it looks like the company is determined to treat wind energy development as a milestone that enhances its image in the world.

The press release for delivery of the turbine even went so far as to compare the new piece of infrastructure to another national icon:

Once commissioned in January 2017 the wind turbine will present a striking landmark on the Turaif skyline. The tips of the blades will reach a height of 145 meters, or almost half the height of Riyadh’s Kingdom Tower…

But wait, there’s more:

…The diameter of the wind turbine rotor blades will dwarf the span of the World’s largest passenger jet. At 120 meters, the rotor diameter is 50% wider than the wing span of an Airbus 380…

The new turbine will reduce the use of diesel at the company’s power plant in Turaif, and that’s just for starters.

Here’s the happy recap from Saudi Aramco:

Wind energy will become a key source of power under the National Renewables Program, which will deliver a combined 9,500 Mega Watts to the Kingdom from wind and solar energy by 2023.

Trump Or No Trump, Coal Is Going Down

On the flip side, the news for coal keeps getting worse. The coal decline is especially notable here in the US, though President Donald J. Trump continues to hold out hope.

In a speech last Monday, the President reiterated his oft-repeated promise to recharge the shrinking coal industry:

“We are going to put our coal miners back to work,” he said. “They have not been treated well. But they are going to be treated well.”

That’s good to know, but considering how well the President’s signature campaign promise to repeal Obamacare has been going, perhaps the beleaguered coal industry should look elsewhere for relief.

Photo: GE “space frame” turbine tower by Tina Casey.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3326 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey