The UK government is getting ready to reclaim lost ground in wind manufacturing, as well as some lost clout for itself, after last year’s embarrassing decision by Danish turbine maker Vestas to close Britain’s only wind turbine factory.
Vestas shut down its Isle of Wight onshore blade-making plant in July in the face of public anger to new wind farms. The company said it would be focusing on the American market instead.
But months later, a revival of the UK sector is under way from other wind giants, one that may give the nation a big presence in the offshore wind power manufacturing industry.
Last week, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries said it would invest $150 million in building an R&D turbine facility to meet the exploding needs of offshore wind there.
In a memorandum of understanding with the British government, the company said it would test Mitsubishi’s 6-megawatt second-generation technology and develop third-generation turbines at a UK site, dubbed the "Mitsubishi Offshore Wind Centre for Advanced Technology."
Ed Miliband, UK energy and climate secretary, called the agreement "another step to turning Britain into a leading green manufacturing center."
Lord Mandelson, UK business secretary, said it was "a real opportunity for the UK."
"No company anywhere in the world makes offshore wind turbines of the size we’re talking about today on a commercial scale," Mandelson said. "Mitsubishi are planning to develop them and to develop them here in Britain."
At the same time, Spain-based turbine maker Gamesa announced it was considering constructing its own turbine plant on UK soil. In January, engineering firm Mabey Bridge confirmed it would invest $57 million in a factory in Wales to build onshore turbine towers.
And Clipper, the second largest turbine maker in the U.S, has broken ground on a new plant in Newcastle that is expected to churn out a 10-megawatt offshore blade for the company’s much-anticipated Britannia turbine.
The 4,000-square-meter facility will be completed in the fall of 2010 and eventually employ 500 people.
"The offshore wind market in the UK is rapidly becoming one of the most exciting sectors in the global renewable energy industry," said James G.P. Dehlsen, chairman of Clipper.
Maria McCaffery, chief executive for the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA), said she was "delighted" by the spate of developments.
"This all signals the rebirth of manufacturing in the UK with an estimated 70,000 green collar jobs to be created on the back of over £100 billion of private sector investment," McCaffery said.
The sudden manufacturing jump accompanies the UK’s decision to greenlight nine new offshore wind farms for a capacity of 25 gigawatts of power. The installations, combined with the previous 9 gigawatts of offshore projects previously approved, could supply 25 percent of the nation’s power in 10 years if built out.
The UK is chasing a 30 gigawatt wind energy target by 2020.
For now, the nation remains behind the curve on wind relative to Europe’s clean power giants. Currently, the UK has a total of 4 gigawatts of wind power capacity installed, according to figures from the BWEA. European wind leader Germany has 25 gigawatts.
But the UK has the largest wind resource in Europe. Winds blowing off the east and west costs are capable of delivering current demand for electricity many times over, according to government figures. Even now, the nation leads on offshore wind with a little more than half of the world’s 1 gigawatt of installed capacity, the most of any state in the world.
Made in the UK
A domestic manufacturing industry would mean more than just a burst of green power but also an export industry for wind components that would create tens of thousands of new jobs, the government says. Officials say a $150 billion investment would create 70,000 jobs by 2020.
To lure in project investors and foreign turbine makers, the nation has offered a generous subsidy. But it also needs to guarantee manufactures brisk demand from the British market.
For onshore wind, this has been a challenge.
Planning permission for on-land installations has been consistently shot down by UK bodies, creating a bottleneck for new wind farms and a crisis of confidence in the sector. The main reason has been opposition from organized "nimby" opponents, who say turbines ruin landscapes and cause noise pollution.
It is because of this that Vestas pulled the plug on its blade factory. There were not enough orders to justify keeping the factory open, the company said. The market has "not met the company’s expectations," Vestas wrote at the time.
BWEA is warning policymakers against a repeat of the Vestas incident. In an announcement on the new Wales turbine plant, the group said: Wales "must not squander the golden opportunity to establish wind energy manufacturing by continuing to frustrate planning consents for onshore wind farms."
"During the last four years, developers have had to wait an average of 21 months for decisions on planning applications. Wales is only 17 percent on its way to achieving its 2010 onshore wind energy targets," BWEA said.
Worldwide, offshore wind plans have been vulnerable to not-in-my-backyard opposition, the most famous of which is the Cape Wind project off Nantucket Sound in the Northeastern United States, a project that has been caught up in legal and regulatory limbo since 2001.
But the UK government appears determined to sink any opposition to its offshore counterpart. In a sign the sector might face a different fate, Vestas has said it is opening a technology center on the Isle of Wight in 2011 to test offshore wind turbines currently under development.