Winds of Change

Wind Turbine Manufacturers at the Tipping Point

Vestas’ announcement of its first quarter results came as another setback to the wind energy sector and mirrors the predicament of a number of wind turbine manufacturers, which is already suffering from turbine overcapacity, project delays and rising costs.

Vestas has been losing market shares in new installed wind turbine capacity since 2006, a stark contrast to its cost-competitive Chinese counterparts - Sinovel Wind Group and Xinjiang GoldWind Science & Technology in particular - whose market shares have been on a steady ascent in the past years. That these market positions might change in the future cannot be ignored, however. Both Sinovel and GoldWind’s net income fell in the first quarter of this year, owing from a decelerating Chinese wind power sector and an aggressive domestic price competition.  While one can argue that there are still technological discrepancies between Asian and Western turbine manufacturers, Vestas’ problems with its gearboxes on the V90-3.0 MW turbines did little to help its case. In the current situation of rising raw material prices, high turbine inventories and fierce price wars, it is in the interest of turbine manufacturers to keep their costs as low as possible to preserve their margins.

With a cumulative installed capacity of 3.5 GW, the offshore wind power market accounted for 1.5 per cent of the total wind power market in 2011. With large scale commercial offshore wind farms currently under construction and in the planning phase, offshore wind power capacity is expected to reach 52.1 GW in 2020 by growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 35.1 per cent from 2011, and will contribute 7.1 per cent of the total wind power market by 2020.

Whilst wind turbine companies could seek refuge from the prospects in the offshore wind power sector, growth in this market is tempered by poor market conditions, lack of an offshore grid and difficulties in accessing credit. Uncertainties in the regulatory and economic climate are the prime reasons why both Nordex and Doosan Power Systems pulled the plug from its offshore wind power business. This sentiment is also echoed by Gamesa who with its partner Newport News Shipbuilding, halted plans to install its 5MW prototype turbine in the US.

In addition, there is stiff competition from incumbent players who are armed with sufficient financial and operational muscle to invest in Research & Development (R&D), as proven technology is increasingly becoming an important selling proposition to thrive in the offshore wind power business. Mitsubishi Power Systems Europe, Samsung Heavy Industries and Ming Yang are a few of those companies who are investing in its offshore wind power technology development.

Whether the Production Tax Credit (PTC), a 30 per cent investment tax credit available to a number of renewable energy plants in the US, will be extended is another hurdle for offshore wind turbine manufacturers. If indeed this is not renewed at the end of this year, Vestas for instance would need to cut a chunk of its US workforce that will hamper its ability to turnaround its performance and bring back investor confidence. In a similar vein, US offshore wind plant developers will likely find it difficult to find financing for its projects if the PTC is not extended.

Jennifer Santos is GlobalData’s Head of Energy Consulting Services.

Photograph: Getty Images

Jennifer Santos is GlobalData’s Head of Energy Consulting Services.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.