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Winds of Change

Wind Turbine Manufacturers at the Tipping Point

Photograph: Getty Images

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.