Stories about IT pioneers often begin in a garage and end up in a global corporation. For Henrik Stiesdal, the garage was his parents’ farm in Denmark. A garage would hardly have been big enough: Stiesdal wasn’t building computers, but wind turbines – and has been doing so for the last 38 years. For the last 14 of those, his job title has been Chief Technology Officer at Siemens Wind Power, where he is jointly responsible for projects worth billions of euros. It all began in the years from 1976 to 1979, between leaving school and going to university. In that time Stiesdal did some travelling, completed his military service – and built his first wind turbines right there on his parents’ farm.
In fact, it was the farm that gave the 19-year-old high-school graduate the idea in the first place. Electricity and heating prices were going through the roof in the wake of the first oil crisis in 1973. The farm building was over a hundred years old, and poorly insulated. In search of alternatives, the farmers resorted to a Danish tradition: wind turbines had been used for energy self-sufficiency in Denmark since the turn of the century. Stiesdal’s father had also grown up on a farm with a wind turbine. Father and son decided to visit the flagship project of the time. A group of young Danes running an alternative school were building a megawatt wind turbine on their farm, Tvind, on the west coast of Denmark. “I found it hugely interesting because they were people like me. I thought to myself: if they can do it, then so can I,” says Stiesdal.
Returning home, it was clear to Stiesdal and his father that the answer to high energy prices was wind. They got to work. The first rotor they built was a little over a meter long, and had two blades. When they held their creation up to the wind, at first nothing happened. “Even in a quite sharp wind it would not self-start. You had to help with your hand to get it going. But after a while, it accelerated like hell. You could feel the forces of the wind. When you tried to stop it with your hands, they got warm from the friction. That was so dramatic and dynamic that I thought: This is working.”
They tested their next attempt, measuring three metres, in a field. And finally Stiesdal build the turbine which was to supply his parents’ farm with electricity into the ’90s. During this experimental period, he would return to Tvind again and again, where he received valuable tips and compared notes with like-minded peers. One of the big questions at the time was whether the most successful design comprised two or three rotor blades.
However, Stiesdal did not realise he was part of a fully-fledged movement until 1978, when he attended an open day for wind energy at an adult education school. “There were more than a hundred people who were building their own wind turbines. They found that we had become terribly dependent from energy imports and wanted to do something about it.” For young Danes at the time the main concern was finding an alternative to nuclear, while the rural population was concerned about soaring energy prices. For Stiesdal, both things mattered. Back then, no-one could have guessed what lay in store for wind energy over the next 20 years. “We did not think of starting an industry. As self-builders, to a large extent we thought that everyone would be self-builders.”
In 1979, the Danish ministry of commerce held a competition in which two prizes were awarded to the creators of innovative wind turbines. One of the winners was Stiesdal. His model featured flexible blades which could be adjusted according to wind conditions. He used the prize money to develop a prototype and sold the licence to Danish company Vestas. While flying over the company’s nearby site, a pilot friend of Stiesdal’s had noticed that the manufacturer of agricultural machinery, cooling systems and cranes was also working on wind turbines. In 1983 Stiesdal joined Vestas, and has worked in the wind sector ever since.
However, this was not the single-minded career plan it appears at first glance. In fact, for a long time Stiesdal was reluctant to turn what he saw as a hobby into a proper job. “I feared I would spoil something that is so much fun if I made it my profession.” Accordingly, he decided against a course in engineering and signed up for medicine instead. However, despite his interest in the workings of the human body, he found the rigid hierarchy of a hospital distinctly unappealing and switched to biology and physics. Ultimately though, he could not seem to escape his attraction to wind energy, working first for Vestas and then for its competitor Bonus, which would later become Siemens Wind Power. When exams came around, he would hurriedly read up on the material he had missed.
In 1986, after leaving Vestas because he no longer felt comfortable in the rapidly growing company, he came close to definitively relegating his passion for wind energy to hobby status. “But it took only a few months until I missed it too much.”He had recently sat together with Bonus employees at a wind conference, and they had hit it off. In 1987 he took a job with Bonus in the Danish town of Brande, where he has remained for the last 27 years – since 2000 as Chief Technology Officer. His attempt to prevent his hobby from becoming a career was unsuccessful, says Stiesdal – but also entirely misguided. “I could do it for a living and it has been great fun ever since.“ Fun is a word he mentions often in connection with his work.
As Chief Technology Officer, his job is to keep an eye on developments, think strategically, and distinguish good ideas from bad. An economic perspective is also crucial: ”Technology cannot be separated from the market. It is always there.” For every new technology, he asks “is it economically viable?” and “how will the market react?”. For Stiesdal, the future of offshore wind turbines is a given. Indeed, he regards them as an integral part of the wind energy industry. This is not surprising coming from a Siemens manager; after all, it is an area in which the company has some clout, unlike in the highly competitive onshore market. Just recently, Siemens received a EUR 1.5 billion order for a wind farm off the coast of the Netherlands. However, Stiesdal is also genuinely excited about the fact that the 10-year-old Nysted wind farm off the south coast of Denmark generates enough electricity to supply his home city of Odense, the third largest city in Denmark. “In the long-run, Offshore is here to stay. It has the benefit that there is basically no limit. We could feed all of Europe with electricity and still have enough space left at sea,“ he says.
Stiesdal maintains that by 2025, generating electricity using offshore wind will only be slightly more expensive than onshore wind and natural gas, as long as carbon taxes, subsidies and job creation are all taken into account. This is the conclusion reached by a Siemens project devoted to calculating the social costs of different energy sources. In the meantime, the idea is to make the comparatively expensive technology cheaper and develop better storage technology, with a view to making wind energy – both on land and at sea – the most attractive option for electricity generation. Accordingly, Stiesdal is also working on a new form of storage technology, which is expected to reach the market in the next few years. For the second time, he is following in the footsteps of Poul la Cour, who paved the way for Danish farmers to achieve energy self-sufficiency using wind turbines in the 19th century. Besides wind technology, la Cour also experimented with hydrogen storage. Since 1993, the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) has awarded a yearly prize for outstanding achievements in the sector, named after la Cour. In 2011 it was awarded to Henrik Stiesdal.
It has been a long road from energy self-sufficiency in an agricultural setting to huge offshore wind farms with the capacity to supply entire cities. “I am immodestly proud of having played my little part in building up an industry like this,” says Stiesdal. It is not just Stiesdal’s work that has undergone a radical transformation since building his first wind turbine on his parents’ farm – today’s companies have little in common with those early years. During his time at Bonus, the company has experienced massive growth. When Siemens took over in 2004, it already had 800 employees. Stiesdal has always seen the acquisition as a good thing. As former owner Peter Sørensen approached retirement and projects kept increasing in size, the Bonus management made a conscious decision to sell. “We agreed that we should sell the company to an industrial player and that we should do that as long as we are on top of things and could still say no.” Today, Siemens Wind Power employs around 10,000 people. Over the years, CEOs have come and gone, and according to Stiesdal each of them was best suited to that particular stage in the company’s development. Stiesdal himself has been there all along as CTO.
Relatively early on in the process, he experienced a sobering wake-up call, what he calls “cold turkey”. At the company’s Christmas party in 1996, lots were drawn to determine the seating plan. Stiesdal sat at his allotted table, and realised that he did not know any of his neighbours. ”Until then, I always felt like we were a family. Now I knew we had outgrown that.”A few years later, the same thing happened in the engineering department, which had consisted of nine people when Stiesdal first joined Bonus. “But that is a good and necessary price to pay. If we want to make wind the preferred source of electricity, we have to be companies that are no longer families. That is the only way it will work.” And so, Stiesdal said goodbye to one ideal in order to uphold another, making his peace with growth.
The trailblazing days of the sector are over – of that he is certain. Stiesdal is a friendly person, who appreciates the importance of a collegial atmosphere. However, when it comes to wind technology – his technology – he doesn’t mince his words. He regularly receives correspondence from amateur engineers announcing revolutionary discoveries. “People somehow believe that without domain knowledge about our industry, they can invent fundamental improvements. But this is not how it works.” Years of experience in the sector are indispensable. There are over 200 patents registered in Stiesdal’s name. The ones he is proudest of describe rotor blades cast as a single piece and gearless turbines.
The issues which motivate Stiesdal’s work can be found by reading his profile on the online messaging service Twitter. Two topics account for half of all his tweets respectively. The first is his ever-present fascination with wind technology, its niceties and its potential. Stiesdal’s other great preoccupation is climate change – for instance, the fact that in April, for the first time in the existence of mankind, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere exceeded 400 ppm (parts per million). He wants to leave behind a planet on which his two daughters and their descendants can have a good life.
Since the climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, he has little faith in the ability of politics to achieve this goal. “Politicians are not going to solve this. Industry has to make wind power affordable to such a level that they basically cannot say no. We need to get to a point where people do not ask `how can we afford it?´ but: `how can we afford not to?´. That is my dream: At the end of 2014 Stiesdal left Siemens Wind Power to spend more time with his family. After nearly four decades in the wind sector, he will have come a long way towards fulfilling that dream. “Wind energy pioneer” is a heading in Henrik Stiesdal’s CV for the period from 1976 to 1979, when he was building his first wind turbines. It remains apt to this day.