“For me, energy is an essential key for a sustainable world” – in an interview with Andreas Reuter, we discuss the importance of wind energy research, the role of wind energy as one of the key energy resources, and the dynamic technological developments in this industry. Andreas explains why the combination of existing knowledge and new approaches is important to him in research, what it takes for young scientists to break through in the diverse disciplines of wind energy research, and how IWES is constantly evolving in terms of new research priorities.
Editorial team: Are you satisfied with the current political framework for wind energy research? What needs to happen?
Andreas: “The financial resources for wind energy research projects funded through the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWK) have halved in the last five years. There is no sign of a clear roadmap for how the federal government aims to achieve the expansion targets. In my opinion, this is a contradiction that I don’t think is properly understood in Berlin, as the topic of wind energy is predominantly an implementation problem and not so much a technology and innovation issue for many new players in the ministry. In addition, budgets are tight and, in light of current events in the world such as the war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a tendency to save money across the board. We fear that this will continue to affect wind energy research. In close cooperation with the industry, we explain time and time again why energy research, and also wind energy research, is particularly necessary in this important industrial environment. We are staying on top of this and continue to perform educational and public relations work – together with players from the photovoltaic sector, as the situation there is also similar.”
Editorial team: What is your approach for a sustainable world for future generations?
Andreas: “For me, energy is an essential key for a sustainable world. Of course, scarcity of resources and recycling are also important issues. IWES is active in the energy sector, and we believe that energy is the key. I am convinced that, even with all the positive developments in the PV industry, wind energy remains at least an equally good, if not even better, solution for energy production at a large number of locations. Resource consumption is also lower with wind, meaning that wind energy is not only more sustainable, but in many regions the better choice for the energy system and associated with lower costs at the same time.”
Editorial team: What have the particular challenges been in wind energy?
Andreas: “The transition to cost-efficient operation of wind energy: in the early days, electricity from wind turbines was still expensive and promoted back then out of pure idealism. The first turbine I was involved with was sold to Janosch in Tuscany. He operated it as a hobby. It took around 10 years in the 90s for wind energy to prove itself economically viable. This happened at the windy locations in the U.S. first, then the technology was expanded and improved more and more, the costs were lowered continuously, and, today, wind energy is considered the cheapest form of energy production even in the inland regions in Germany.”
Wind energy industry
Editorial team: What is the interesting thing about the interaction between industry and our research?
Andreas: “I find our research really exciting as it is often a part of development projects: on the one hand, where large components tests are concerned, for example turbine development. However, there are also other aspects such as in the field of seismic research, which can be applied in projects directly and in the short term. Our activities are important and can be used in the short term, thus they are less anchored in the field of basic research, which tends to adopt a more long-term approach and therefore cannot be translated into projects immediately.”
Editorial team: A look at the world stage: Where do we stand compared to the international competition?
Andreas: “We as a research institute are part of the Western wind energy industry, even though we also work with the Chinese wind industry. It is quite a neck-and-neck race: China has invested a lot and the approach is very dynamic, meaning projects are ‘just done’, even if not everything works perfectly right away and problems arise. The pace is rapid, and optimizations are implemented faster. The Chinese wind energy industry also faces specific challenges, as the local wind market functions differently than here in Germany: moderate water depths, less wind. The results differ slightly. The markets function differently, and thus there is generally no direct conflict between the players. Sure, Western companies have lost market shares in China, but Chinese firms have yet to gain a substantial foothold in the Western market. There are, however, many cross-connections via the supplier industry, as Chinese manufacturers purchase high-quality components such as bearings and control systems from Western companies. On the other hand, many rotor blades for the Western market are manufactured in China, as it is cheaper. The very labor-intensive production of the blades is worthwhile there, despite the logistics efforts.”
Editorial team: Is Germany still a pioneer for new and sustainable energy technologies?
Andreas: “That is a very interesting question, as, if you ask the Danes, Germany was never a pioneer, but always just a fast follower – wind energy was invented in Denmark after all. I don’t think that is entirely true: there were Danish and German pioneers, and there has always been ongoing competition between the two countries. We at IWES contributed significantly to ensuring this neck-and-neck race continued and still does now with other players, but we need to stay on the ball. I see very dynamic developments, for example at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), which is also investing a great deal in the field of hydrogen and has expanded its activities in the field of electrical engineering tremendously. We need to keep pace with progress, as it also has further implications for the importance of the local economy. In Denmark, science is closely and successfully intertwined with the economic developments and applications in the field of wind energy. This can be a useful blueprint for us, for our planning at the institute, and for the expansion of renewable energies overall.”
Editorial team: The new research field of hydrogen is increasingly establishing itself at the institute. How can we specifically advance sector coupling in this area?
Andreas: “At present, there are still no industrial applications for green hydrogen production; there is still a lot of wishful thinking involved there. Many of the aspects concerning electrolyzers or even the entire infrastructure are still in the planning phase, from seawater desalination in the offshore field to direct connection to the grids at the wind turbines. That is all not yet completed, and the implementation is also not merely a case of plug and play. There will still be many challenges and interface and reliability problems ahead with the systems. We already know that from other areas, e.g., heat pumps, which have a few years’ lead time compared with hydrogen applications. Although heat pumps are now in widespread use, the systems still require a relatively large number of improvements – and that takes both time and money. I fear the same will be true for the hydrogen sector. However, that is exactly where we come in, as we can employ the experience gained in wind energy, especially offshore wind energy, in our attempts to avoid mistakes and thus save costs.”
Editorial team: Digitalization is also a strategic focus at IWES. What does that mean for a research institute in the wind and hydrogen sector?
Andreas: “Digitalization is not a simple term, as we have always employed digital solutions in the wind energy sector. For example, if I consider the numerous simulation programs that have been in use for more than 20 years – they’re actually all digital solutions. They are used for the complex calculation of loads in wind turbines, for example. In addition, we see ideas and solutions today that are made possible by increased computing power as well as storage and cloud solutions. Neuronal networks are also by no means a new phenomenon, but they are now being employed in new contexts. In my opinion, this is an intensified and very worthwhile application of numerical methods in IT infrastructure. Wave effects have been observed in the wind industry since the 1990s: initially, the aim was to simulate everything on computers, as measurements in the field were time-consuming, expensive, and imprecise. Then it became evident that the simulation programs were also not sufficiently accurate to reproduce certain phenomena with precision. As a result, investment in hardware and infrastructure tests increased again. Fraunhofer IWES also started out with that. However, we are now entering the next phase, with numericists introducing better models and approaches, such as big data. In case of doubt, pattern recognition will also be used here if correspondingly good models are available. Even with new approaches, it remains a never-ending neck-and-neck race to achieve good results – and good results are important. Ultimately, however, it is an interplay of methods. This is also where I see our position and task: developing ‘tangible’ results, then using them to produce data and offering digital solutions with which the data can be further processed. A balancing act for which we need all our interdisciplinary skills.”
Editorial team: Scientific excellence is important, as the competition for the “best minds” remains as much a reality as ever. What challenges do young scientists face today?
Andreas: “One great challenge is filling young scientists’ minds with as wide a range of knowledge as possible in as short an amount of time as possible. How can we ensure that they learn relatively quickly what has already been achieved so as not to have to start from scratch? I think that the field of engineering is largely based on experience. Simply applying three mathematical methods learned in university is not enough to reflect the experiences gained from 30 or 40 years in the wind energy industry. How can we ensure that this broad base is continuously expanded upon and, in doing so, avoid the same mistakes being made time after time and progress simply taking too long? In addition, wind energy is a complex field and not strictly formalized – something which is often underestimated. From an engineering perspective, a wind turbine is a complex system requiring an interplay of different disciplines: wind physics, lightweight construction, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and civil engineering. That doesn’t fit into the classic categories and yet has to be learned by the scientists.”
Institute Fraunhofer IWES
Editorial team: From industry to research and teaching: what makes Fraunhofer exciting for you?
Andreas: “I find the combination of new research approaches that are not only theoretical but also make their way into practical applications particularly exciting. That includes not only computer programs but also physical test benches: the rotor blade is tested, seismic measuring devices towed through the North Sea – that has immediate effects in a thoroughly sustainable environment. Compared with other research institutes, we do not function on a project basis alone and have no time-restricted framework in which we have to work. Fraunhofer has set out for long-term goals and positive changes, as the research fields are important and are needed. We want to work sustainably, and there should still be meaningful wind energy projects in the next 20 years. That is in contrast to the industrial environment, as there it’s predominantly about good quarterly results and what the future will look like in ten years’ time is a secondary consideration for the time being.”
Editorial team: The IWES was expanded with two new sites at the beginning of 2022. What challenges are associated with this decentralized structure? Keyword: New Work
Andreas: “We were already decentralized before, but one particular challenge is that the institute adopted a whole new research topic at the beginning of the year: hydrogen. And with it a new institute culture and a new environment. The Leuna site focuses on the chemical industry, in contrast to the Bremerhaven site, which is located in the fishing port and concentrates on the offshore environment. Our task now is to bring the sites together in a meaningful way and to understand each other, because, after all, there are different expectations and habits. What and how can we learn from each other? I think the merging of the institutes, IWES 2.0 if you will, is an opportunity, including at management level, to question the ‘that’s how we’ve always done it’ phenomenon critically and step out of our comfort zone.”
Editorial team: What has changed compared with the institute’s early years?
Andreas: “The size of the institute. In the early years, there was only the Windhaus building in Bremerhaven, with the engineering building opposite and a few members of staff working remotely in Oldenburg. Everyone knew everyone as well as more or less exactly what everyone did – we worked together very closely. However, the founding team back then was also faced with many challenges, which were certainly not always easy to master. Today, we enjoy a trusting cooperation at IWES, even though we belong to different departments. The way we work and the demands on our work have changed. New Work is on everybody’s lips and digitalization has also left massive traces here. Digital working was an enormous help to us at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but, ultimately, it is also a challenge and associated with a great many questions: How can we organize digital meetings efficiently? How do we communicate with each other? We needed to find a balance. That wasn’t the case in the past, as we simply gathered together in the office. For today’s multiple options, we now need to identify the right approach for every purpose.”
Editorial team: You have been a professor of wind energy engineering since 2010, and innovative turbine concepts are also one of your special focuses. What should each of your graduates take away from your lectures?
Andreas: “The basics first of all: Why does a wind turbine turn? That is really a challenge for students. Civil engineers are often not familiar with aerodynamics, in other words with what moves. A few basics are needed here to explain how the physics of the wind turbines and all the consequences behind them work, e.g., what the dependence of energy production on the third power of the wind speed means: little wind, very little energy; a lot of wind, a lot of energy. If the complexity of the machine is then internalized and understood, I as a professor have achieved the main objective. Wind physics, aerodynamics, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering all work and interact together in a wind turbine. At the same time, that is also what is so appealing about the subject and what we lecturers see in the lectures, which are well attended and popular with 50 to 100 students. For our faculty in the master’s course, that is definitely a large lecture, so the interest is high.”
Editorial team: What in particular has shaped you in your professional career?
Andreas: “The dynamic changes in a pioneering industry, as a supplier for Danish farms up to international conglomerates. I have held a number of positions and responsibilities, from development engineer to design manager via managing director and company owner. Every role brought with it special challenges, and I learned a lot in all of them. Being responsible for a component and seeing how my design was actually realized, not just once, but a thousand times, plus being sure that it really works, was one of my most valuable learning experiences. I also found it interesting being responsible for a company, in other words for the business figures, financial statements, and ideas of owners. When I opened my own engineering firm, I also took on sole responsibility for the cash flow and salary payments. However, I was always somehow involved with wind energy, there was always a lot to do and learn, and that’s what I found especially fascinating. It was often exciting. The end result is that I don’t get as excited any more – somehow, I’ve seen it all before.”
Editorial team: Decision-making – go with your gut or use your head?
Andreas: “I always think things through, but when it comes to left or right, I trust my gut instincts, and everything turns out fine.”
Editorial team: Thank you for your time, Andreas!
Further information can be found here:
Technology trends in wind energy – turbine growth – Blog | Fraunhofer-Institut für Windenergie
Podcast, Fachagentur Windenergie an Land, “Wie funktioniert ein Windrad, Andreas Reuter?” (in German only)