Finnish company Yaskawa Environmental Energy / The Switch has been pioneering electricity train drive solutions, enabling renewable power companies to become even more energy efficient
Writer: Dani Redd | Project Manager: Matthew Taylor
Global energy demand continues to rise, driven by industrialisation and population growth.
But fossil fuels are finite – an article written by researchers affiliated to Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB) estimates that our reserves of oil will be used up by 2052, gas by 2060 and coal by 2090.
In order to power our rapidly-growing world, we must turn to renewable energy, which is derived from natural resources – sunlight, wind, rain, waves and biomass – which can be replenished without depleting the planet’s resources. As well as being readily available, renewables emit low or no air pollutants.
Unsurprisingly, the fast-growing renewables sector is attracting an increasing number of professionals eager to make a difference, including Miika Reinikka.
“Back in 2009, I was living in Vaasa but working for a telecoms company in Espoo (outside Helsinki). I got a little fed up with travelling, so I decided to take a break and left that company. After a couple of months, I started to look around in Vaasa and found The Switch. This looked like an interesting startup company in the renewable industry. So, I applied for a sales position – and the rest is history,” he says.
Reinikka is now President of Yaskawa Environmental Energy Division and Chairman of the Board of The Switch companies after spending a decade working his way up the ranks from Account Manager to Head of Sales in Europe, and later as Wind Business Unit Director.
Yaskawa Environmental Energy / The Switch was founded in 2006, the result of a merger between three small companies in Vaasa, Lappeenranta and Hudson respectively. It uses electric drive train technology to create power-generating components for renewable and industrial uses.
“Initially, the focus was on permanent magnet generators and full-power converters for the wind industry,” Reinikka explains. “We had several success stories early on in China. This fast-growing wind market became the first driver for the company’s rapid growth, thanks to converter sales to Chinese OEMs.
“A few years later, when the wind markets in China had some hiccups, we started to look at new application areas like marine and industry. We also signed on some new wind customers in Europe and acquired a marine drives business from Wärtsilä in 2016.”
These days, Yaskawa Environmental Energy / The Switch employs around 200 people, with offices in Finland, Norway and China, and among its main customers are MHI Vestas Offshore, WETech, Gardner Denver and MAN.
The company has played an important role in shaping the renewable energy sector, using electric drive train technology to help industry protagonists become more energy efficient.
“Our drive trains are indeed used to produce energy sustainably, contain energy effectively and consume energy responsibly,” Reinikka says. “This we have achieved by selecting the best and most efficient technologies for different application areas.
“We have been the pioneer for bringing permanent magnet generator (PMG) technology and full-power converters to wind turbines. When we started, there was hardly anyone else promoting this technology. Now, 100 percent of new offshore and many large-power onshore wind turbines have drive trains based on these technologies.”
Yaskawa Environmental Energy / The Switch has made similar strides in the marine applications sector, where PMGs have gone from being little-used to standing tall as the standard for large power shaft generator systems. Meanwhile, its high-speed solid rotor induction machine technology has gone a long way to optimising performance in industrial and turbo applications.
The firm is committed to helping its clients commit to becoming more energy efficient, not only installing equipment but also through providing preventative maintenance, a spare parts service and a comprehensive on-site training programme. Furthermore, each energy solution is bespoke, tailored to each client’s needs. This level of specificity – coupled with advanced materials technologies – means that the firm is able to reach machine efficiency levels exceeding 98 percent.
Collaboration is key
Yaskawa Environmental Energy / The Switch is a dynamic and agile business that is constantly seeking new challenges, striving to innovate and grow.
In 2014 the company was acquired by Yaskawa Electric Corporation – a pioneer in motion control and robotics – a move which Reinikka explains has had many strategic benefits.
“Yaskawa has ensured a solid financial base for us to develop our businesses,” he says. “They have invested in acquisitions like the Marine Drives business acquisition and supported investment for a large drive test centre in Lappeenranta, where we can test high-power electrical machines and converters up to 15 MW and beyond.
“Yaskawa has also opened doors to the Japanese markets and helped us with process and product quality improvements.”
Collaborations with those companies who have similar values and ethos is integral to the company’s future growth. It likes to conduct product development, final assembly and testing in-house, and most of the component manufacturing – such as welding and sheet metal cutting – is sourced from its supply network.
“It is really critical for this kind of network manufacturing model to have a range of strategic suppliers that you can trust,” Reinikka explains.
“Our global sourcing team works hard to maintain these relationships and to find new partners. We also have a local sourcing team in China and use selected suppliers from there as well to keep ourselves competitive.”
Indeed, Yaskawa Environmental Energy / The Switch continues to innovate and experiment in order to improve its services. It is currently in the process of launching a series of standard solid rotor machines and converters, which reduce the amount of components needed during energy transmission.
Reinikka adds: “Previously, we developed solid rotor machines that have been pretty tightly integrated to our customers’ equipment.
“This is sometimes the most optimal solution but typically takes a lot of engineering effort and time. Now we are making this technology widely and quickly available for new customers and applications. It will be interesting to see how the market will react.”
Another interesting project in the pipeline is being delivered for Caterpillar/Berg Propulsion, and includes an innovative Twin Fin propulsion package coupled with a high power PM propulsion motor and drive.
“This is not only a great new innovation but also a new major customer for us,” Reinikka comments.
Yaskawa Environmental Energy / The Switch is also making inroads into the energy storage arena. Having participated in some experimental projects in the past, it is now working with a new client on creating a battery-based grid support system.
“I feel that energy storage systems are the key for extending renewable energy sources,” Reinikka continues. “Everybody understands that the wind is not always blowing, and the sun is not shining at night. So, there has to be a way to produce energy in other ways when these sources are not available.
“The most sustainable way in the future seems to be to generate energy with renewables, storing the energy when you can and using it as needed.”
The company is actively investigating this market, and is looking to partner with energy storage solutions providers who want to connect their electricity storage systems to the grid. It has experience in grid connection both in the fields of wind energy and the marine sector.
In the near future, Reinikka desires to push growth in the marine and industry markets in order to achieve more balanced revenue streams.
This is because the wind market – the firm’s earliest specialisation – has experienced a major consolidation of wind turbine manufacturers.
“The opportunities for independent component suppliers like us are limited,” he says. “Indeed, we want to take good care of our existing customers and serve them well. But at the same time, we have to look for growth outside renewables as there are simply more opportunities.”
Not only will looking for customers outside renewables help to drive Yaskawa Environmental Energy / The Switch’s energetic growth, it will also create changes in the industry, improving the way that energy is stored and consumed.
With its bespoke engineering solutions, agile mindset and sustainable values, it’s clear that Yaskawa Environmental Energy/ The Switch is a company with a conscience; one that is very much here to stay.