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Sandy Butterfield, Founding CEO and CTO Boulder Wind Power


In this IEC Global Visions interview, Sandy Butterfield, Founding CEO and CTO of Boulder Wind Power, a pioneer in the US wind industry, provides insights into the key factors that allowed this industry to develop. He explains how international standardization allows his company to sell products globally, stimulates innovation, increases stakeholder confidence and the ability to obtain financing.



Sandy Butterfield, Founding CEO and CTO Boulder Wind Power

Boulder Wind Power is a small, venture-backed company and despite that it is very active in the IEC. How do you justify this investment?

Butterfield: My involvement with standardization predates the existence of this company. Venture-backed companies are hard-nosed, economic driven, data-driven companies. A precondition to continuing my engagement as chairman in IEC TC (Technical Committee) 88 was to demonstrate the advantages of this investment to my shareholders. I was able to convince them that my involvement with the IEC allows our company to have regular working meetings with potential customers and users, which allow us to better understand their goals and needs. It also gives Boulder Wind Power exposure and more importantly, I think it helps us maintain a real focus on making sure that our product will fit into the OEMs design process. We also better understand the standards and are able to develop products that more easily fulfil certification requirements.

Our aim is to sell world-wide and we can’t possibly design to the range of national standards. With our involvement we can ensure that our technologies are taken into account and encourage harmonization as much as possible, because IEC Standards are really the only common denominator out there. In international standards IEC is the only real game in town, and so that's the right place for us to be involved in.

What are the benefits of standards for stakeholders such as investors or regulators?

Butterfield: Clearly standards increase stakeholder confidence. The wind industry has a lot of them because wind energy affects many people. They affect the people who invest in wind turbines but also regulators because many people live in communities where wind turbines are installed. It is very important for those stakeholders to have confidence that the machines have been designed in such a way that they are reliable. Today wind turbines are bankable and standards have helped build that trust. They reassure the financial community and regulators that machines were designed to some objective third party process; that they have been reviewed according to some rules that the entire industry agreed upon. This builds confidence and allows the wind industry to grow.

How did you discover standardization?

Butterfield: It took me a while to understand the importance of standardization for the wind industry. My career in wind energy started way back, during my college days when I was recruited to design a wind turbine at the University of Massachusetts. After my studies I went into research for a small wind energy research programme that was funded by the Department of Energy. I then founded a wind turbine company, ESI, in the early 80s. Later I continued my research at NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratories) in Boulder, Colorado.

When I started as VP of Engineering at ESI my attitude and that of many of my peers was that standardization holds you back, it constrains innovation and is not the path to the most creative, the lowest cost, and the most reliable solution.

However, my experience at ESI helped me realize that some of the issues that prevented the industry from growing were linked to the fact that there was no consistent design process. Important features were missing, designs were inconsistent: wind energy was not bankable.

Through my job at NREL I got involved in the standardization process. I realized that standardized criteria and measurements allowed us to design better, more reliable machines, independently of their technological background. A common set of defined conditions, load cases combined with testing and analysis led to a much more robust design process. So I became a believer. I started to recognize the value of harmonizing; that it didn’t hold back innovation, in the contrary, it gave us a more objective way of measuring the value of our innovations.

How has standardization helped build this industry?

Butterfield: Standards give us consistent measures of performance and reliability and allow us to measure objectively our advancement of the technology. 
I’ve watched the evolution of wind turbines. In the beginning, in the early 80s, there was a wide discrepancy in machine configurations and design practices and almost all machines were fairly unreliable. Through evolution of the machine designs and much better awareness of the operating environment their reliability started to improve. One reason was that we began to test and we started to understand what the real damaging design conditions were. That objective testing was part of the standards developed in the IEC. This approach allowed us to obtain reliable information that could be compared across platforms and for different turbine technologies and designs. Standards allowed us to get reliable validation data and helped us develop more reliable machines.

Standards also provided us with a common vocabulary. This is a very technical product and in order to communicate effectively with a sophisticated audience, we need to use terms that are understood, and standards give us that. Today, any buyer, owner operator or investor who is sophisticated in the wind industry speaks in terms of IEC terminology: a wind class, a turbine design class, turbulence levels, and so on. Everybody understands what is meant. The conversation is more fruitful and constructive and expectations are set more accurately.

You mentioned earlier that standards allow for easier certification. How so?

Butterfield: Ultimately in the wind energy business all wind turbines end up being certified. It’s a market imperative. There are maybe some turbines out there that are not certified, but for the most part if you want to succeed in the commercial world of wind energy you need to have a certified turbine. Certification bodies perform that certification. In order to truly understand certification requirements, some participation in the standards process is really helpful. Participating in the standards process enables you to understand the standard from the beginning. You also see how others have met quality or performance requirements and this can help you solve your own design issues. I know of companies who felt that they understood the standards without participating and they would go all the way to the end of the product development only to realize that they had missed an important element that then became very difficult and expensive to add. So definitely, some participation in the standardization process facilitates certification.

Oftentimes companies seem to worry about their IP (Intellectual Property) being exposed in the standardization process. What do you say to that?

Butterfield: I've never seen something in a standard that demanded that intellectual property be revealed. In IEC TC 88 for the most part we develop performance-based standards. These include testing methodologies to make sure that there are consistent outcomes. They include design requirements, which simply seek to establish the design environment that all turbine designs should at least address or consider. None of these standards require that a particular technology or innovation be revealed. Any standard that does so is not well designed. Standards are there to enable innovation, making certain that different designs or technologies are able to connect and interoperate.

Where do you see some of the next challenges in standardization?

Butterfield: I think one of the frontiers for the harmonization effort of standards are countries that are just beginning to enter the wind industry. The opportunity for the IEC is to seek to understand what their local requirements are and facilitate their adoption of an international standard rather than having them create a national standard. By drawing roadmaps and bridging gaps with local needs we can seek to connect design requirements for their operating environment.

We also need to build awareness among the non-wind energy community in countries. They are often unaware of our work and increasing their understanding of IEC standards will facilitate harmonization.

Another area is the systems approach. I think there is value in making sure that the whole system is more reliable. We build turbines to very high quality standards and then ship them to the field and watch them being assembled in the mud or in the sand, with technicians who don’t necessarily understand the importance of making a bolted joint correctly or pouring concrete without voids. Half of the technology is made in a well-controlled environment, in a factory; the other half is assembled out in the field. We do a great job of controlling the quality in that factory and not a very good job sometimes of controlling the quality of the installation. Companies who are successful have understood the value of controlling the quality of the installation process. And to that extent, taking their lessons learned and putting them into standards and then assessing conformity would really help the industry move on. The IEC TC 88 certification standard defined project certification, which addresses the field installation stage and maintenance stage of a wind turbine’s life cycle. However, this option is not often used. I think long term reliability would be improved and hence the value of wind plants to future owners would be enhanced if this were more systematically applied. 

How do you see the role of wind power in providing energy to the world?

Butterfield: We just went past 7 billion people. If all of those people had the same lifestyle that we have in the developed world, and they all used fossil fuels, it would be a huge environmental impact, one that we couldn’t possibly tolerate; and fossil fuels are a finite resource. If we also look at where these 7 billion people live and what resources they have in their local environment: very few of them have oil, gas, coal, hydro, but almost all have wind or solar. For many people in the world wind energy is the cheapest form of energy available. Developing countries have a huge appetite for energy and any energy source is good to them. They seek to improve the quality of life for their populations and they know that energy is an important component of that. Facilitating renewable energy is one of the key ways to foster sustainable growth. Wind-energy will be a key component of that mix. It not only makes tremendous sense, it also represents a new economy.