Take a secret, decade-long research project, a corporation worth billions of dollars, and a set of dormant interests suddenly spinning into life high above the ground. That's right, this is the story of the world's first 10- year wind turbine gearbox oil.
"That was the first innovation," says Francois-Joseph Montagne, experimenting with how best to put it, "or it was more a holistic approach of assessing gearbox oil degradation over time." That's if innovation is even the appropriate word for the changes that came with patience. It had been a number of years since Total had decided to focus its efforts in renewable energies primarily on solar power when members of its lubricants subsidiary decided to test the degradation of gearbox oils in several wind farms. After 10 years of monitoring and Total Group new commitment to having 20% low-carbon businesses by 2035 later, that decision looked inspired. There have been a lot of significant decisions since. In 2016, Total acquired a 23% share in renewable energy start-up EREN. Now called Total EREN, the company has already set up a 100MW project in Argentina with Senvion turbines, and a 250MW project in Ukraine with Nordex ones. Moreover, the group's buyout of French electricity retailer Directe Energie gave it 400MW of installed wind capacity, while its investment in the US start-up United Wind puts it in a good position to offer smaller, decentralised wind power solutions. This year, in its biggest move yet, Total joined forces with offshore wind leader Orsted and renewable energy provider Elicio to bid for a 600MW offshore wind power plant near Dunkirk.
"We were new in the field of wind energy lubricants compared with our main competitors," says Montagne, "so the only way to create the room for us in this market was to innovate and offer new ideas." It took an energy major of Total's size to set aside the 10 years necessary to do so, and the lessons that Total Lubricants have learned from that approach are continuing to influence decisions. "Today, we need this innovation and differentiation process to make Total's Lubricant brand exist in wind energy," Montagne continues. "We need to be a new voice with new ideas. We have the advantage of our entirely in-house expertise in lubrication and, as an operator, Total Group is opening doors to OEMS.
Total Lubricants is now well on its way to designing its second major gearbox oil innovation, improving efficiency and thus helping turbine operators produce more energy, and thus more revenue, per kilowatt hour. "Like other companies, we are looking at optimising the revenues generated from our energy production," notes Montagne, "we're behind our commitment to the Paris Agreement and have the ambition to improve energy efficiency in our assets by 1% a year overall, so if we can get 0.X% more efficiency " just by changing the lubricant", it's a great win. It's a huge amount of revenue for the customer when he has that increase in efficiency across all of his installed wind turbines."
Last year, Total Lubricants signed a strategic partnership with the Technical University of Aachen, Germany, to develop its gearbox oils with the institute's Centre for Wind Power Drives. The university is one of a number of test-bench operating partners with which Total is researching its new generation lubricants. "Then, of course, the idea is to test it in a real operating wind turbine," says Montagne. "Once we show that this breakthrough technology can work, we would like to bring it into the market not only for Total assets, but to also make all operators aware that lubrication can bring additional revenues through increased generation efficiency."
It's a task to which Montagne has committed. "We know that the future is electrifying," he says. "Clean efficient power is the only option for tomorrow's world."