Being a researcher, my friends and family don’t usually think of my work as particular creative. But I do believe that there is a lot of creativity in science. The beauty of creation might not be as visible to everyone as it would be in a painting or a sculpture – it is a rather personal beauty, more related to the process and the power of insight. In that, our work is maybe similar to that of a musician or – even more so – a composer creating their next symphony. If you are a published researcher, I bet you recognise it in the feeling that arises when you hold your finished article in your hands for the first time – this deep satisfaction of having created something beautiful. First, there was an empty sheet of paper, and now there is this convincing and insightful piece of text.
But it is not the solitary creative process that makes research great – it is collaboration. I have been so lucky to rather early in my research career stumble into one of the renowned expert task forces of the International Energy Agency, the IEA Wind TCP Task 26 on ‘Cost of Wind Energy’. There I was, still doing my PhD, sitting in a room with some of the world’s most famous experts on the economics of wind energy and was blown away by their depth and breadth of knowledge, their professionalism, engagement and kindness. The Task 26 collaboration is strong, I believe, thanks to the dedicated operating agents from NREL and the highly engaged and diligently attending Task 26 expert members – even if (a side effect of global collaboration) virtual meetings are spanning everything from 6am early mornings (in California) to 11pm late evenings (in Japan), embracing us Europeans nicely in the middle.
In 2018, the task had started some work on repowering, i.e. the combined activity of dismantling or refurbishing older wind energy turbines and installing new ones. When I learned about the approach, I was surprised: it was common to look at turbine-for-turbine replacements and site-specific activities. From experience with local project developers, I knew that this is hardly representative for Denmark. There is often a large divergence between number of turbines dismantled and commissioned in a repowering project, and they are often quite scattered across a larger area. But I didn’t have any firm numbers to support my argument. So, I suggested to add another repowering work stream, using project-level analysis. Luckily, the task members were open to exploring that line of thought further – which I am still thankful for today. I started to have a feeling that we were on to something rather new here. New enough, it turned out, to be published in Nature Energy.
We designed the research, secured the financing, then started on our journey, which – little did we know – should take us almost two years. This was connected to my second surprise: There was absolutely no reliable overview of project-based wind energy development data – not even in what is sometimes referred to as data-‘heaven’ Denmark. Although we were getting much help from national experts along the way, we still had to manually work us through pdf document after pdf document to identify which wind turbines belonged to which project, then manually matching the turbines by their geographic coordinates and adding developer information. When I say we – I of course mean largely my research assistant Morten (a co-author of the paper), who did an amazing job in bringing together the data. Once we had gathered the basic information, we wanted to explore why all these turbines had been dismantled. So, we conducted interviews. We managed to cover over ninety percent of the repowering projects – here, of course, it was convenient that Denmark is a rather small country with comparatively few projects.
During the time in which we were conducting the research, the IEA Task 26 members endured at least three or four presentations about our progress and joined in discussions that covered all from input to methodology, to going through painstakingly detailed excel tables with individual turbine data in obscure project lists, to brainstorming about potential paper titles. Amazingly, our collaborators have never become tired of sharing their advice and encouragement. This has had an enormously positive impact on our work, as we continued to discover new aspects and gather additional insights during the discussions. This is what impactful collaboration looks like.
So, here is to all the young aspiring academics out there: go for it, join the table, ask the tough questions – and then embark on the journey to explore whatever you think needs exploring. You are not on your own. There are many people like me in academia, who are ready to help you – paying back a debt of support and encouragement that we have accumulated over time and that we want to give further to the next generation.
Article: Multifaceted drivers for onshore wind energy repowering and their implications for energy transition, Lena Kitzing, Morten Kofoed Jensen, Thomas Telsnig & Eric Lantz, Nature Energy (2020), https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-020-00717-1