Forecast: Wind Energy to Use More Gear Oils


Forecast: Wind Energy to Use More Gear Oils
A view of a wind turbine nacelle interior with axle, gear box, clutch and cooling system. © Rudmer Zwerver

Demand for lubricants used in the global wind power sector should continue its up-and-down ride in coming years but could reach 100,000 metric tons per annum in the next 10 years, consultancy Kline & Co. estimated during a recent webinar.

The firm also predicts that gear oils will become a bigger part of the sector’s product mix.

Factors impacting that product category include fluctuations in the pace of new wind energy turbine installations, widening oil drain intervals and evolution in wind turbine technologies.

“Preferences for wind turbine technology have evolved based on capital expenditures and operating and maintenance costs,” Hareesh Nalam, a project manager and analyst in Kline & Co.’s energy practice, said during the March 22 webinar about a study the company released early this year analyzing the global wind turbine industry and associated lubricants demand.

The three main turbine technology categories are traditional high-speed gear drive turbines, low-speed direct drive turbines, and a combination of these two, called hybrid drive or medium-speed turbines.

Gear oil is the main type of lube used in wind turbines – currently accounting for about half of overall demand, Nalam said – followed by hydraulic fluids and greases. Gear oil is used for the majority of wind turbine gearboxes, though they aren’t needed in some newer direct drive turbines. Hydraulic fluid is used in hydraulic systems that control the pitch of turbine blades, meaning their angle in relation to the wind. Grease is used to lubricate several turbine components: the main rotor shaft bearing; the yaw bearing, pitch or blade bearings; pitch drive gears; and generator bearings.

Nalam noted the historic preference for geared drive turbines has been shifting towards direct drive turbines, he noted. “As this does not need gear oils, lubricant demand will be limited in direct drive turbines,” he said.

“By the end of this decade, preference for hybrid drive turbines is expected to grow,” he added. The hybrid turbines “are good for the lubricants industry as direct drive turbines will need gear oil.”

While all the three technologies need hydraulic fluids and greases, gear oil is required only for geared drive and hybrid drive turbines, he said. Hybrid drives require marginally lower amounts of gear oils than conventional high-speed geared drive turbines, he said. ”On the other hand, the increasing share of direct drive turbines will limit the growth of gear oil demand,” Nalam added.

Kline found in its comprehensive analysis of the market that the global demand growth for lubricants each year has often fluctuated, and this trend is expected to continue. For example, after global demand for lubricants in the wind energy sector declined more than 5% in 2017, it grew around 5% in 2018 and 2019 and then closer to 15% in 2020 and 20% in 2021. Such demand declined in 2022 and is projected grow more than 10% in 2023 before declining g more than 10% in 2024. Similar fluctuations in demand are forecasted for later years.

He noted that changing number of new wind turbines installed every year is what causes the fluctuation in lubricants demand for the wind energy sector each year. “Installation trends are not linear – some years installations are high, sometimes they are low, or vice versa,” he said. How many previously installed turbines are due for maintenance in a particular year also determines lubricant demand for that year in the sector. “This demand growth trend would vary from region to region, and whether onshore or offshore,” he added.

China and Europe are the leading markets for wind energy lubricants, Kline found.

The product category also has large variations in drain intervals, he said. “It’s important to note that gear oils and hydraulic oils have drain intervals as high as 7 to 10 years,” Nalam said. “However, annual top ups in sizeable volumes are necessary only for greases.”

In 2022, he said, around a quarter of wind turbine lubricants demand was for initial fill. “This segment share is likely to grow to around 40% over the next 10-15 years,” he added.

He noted that more than half of the aftermarket servicing and maintenance is catered to by the OEMs. “This emphasizes the importance of wind turbine OEMs to lubricant suppliers in capturing market share, and the importance of having tie-ups with OEMs,” he said.

Wind turbines are concentrated in a few key markets, he said, including two in the Americas. The top five markets are China, the United States, Brazil, Vietnam and the United Kingdom. “Together, these five countries counted for almost three-fourths of the global wind installations annually in 2022,” he said, citing GWEC’s Global Wind Report 2022.

On an overall basis, estimated current wind power capacity is about 890 GW in 2022. In terms of cumulative wind turbine capacity – meaning installed capacity to-date – the top leading markets include China, North America and Europe, which together account for more than 70% of cumulative capacity.

Onshore wind turbines accounted for close to 77% of overall global wind energy capacity last year. In the onshore segment, China and US are the leading markets, followed by Brazil, Vietnam and Spain. “On other hand, offshore capacity is small, but growing clearly at a high pace,” he said. “Most of the global offshore capacity is installed in China, followed by Europe.” 

In 2021 more than 100 gigawatts of wind energy capacity was installed globally, close to double that of 3-5 years before, he noted. Around 80GW was installed in 2022. The new capacity in 2021 was higher than 2022 and what’s projected for the coming years due to subsidies for onshore capacities being applicable until 2020 and offshore capacities until 2021, he said. That resulted in a rush for wind energy new capacities.

In North America, especially in the United States, greater investment in wind power projects and falling costs for wind power have helped drive adoption of wind power energy, he noted.

“Lubricants for Wind Turbines: Global Market Analysis and Opportunities” is the name of the study.