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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

“The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity,” declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later, but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" – a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain – but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496