An ill wind

Is Vestas being over-hasty in closing its plant on the Isle of Wight, or is the government dragging its heels over the grants, investment and legislation that will allow offshore windfarms to be built and connected quickly?


There’s something funny going on with wind power in the UK. On one hand, we have the workers’ protest at the Vestas wind turbine blade factory on the Isle of Wight, with the sit-in now over and the protestors planning a picket of the plant and of Peter Mandelson’s house. On the other, we have the government insisting at every possible opportunity that the UK is committed to wind power, especially offshore, and intends to expand its use in the next few years.


So, the government says that Britain will not only be a major market for wind turbines and associated equipment, but will also be a centre for turbine technology. The cynical among us might say that we had the chance 20 years ago and let it slip away to Danish companies such as Vestas. Who, incidentally, say that they’re closing down the Isle of Wight plant because of lack of demand for turbines in the UK; all of the factory’s output was exported to the US in recent years, the company says, and with its recent expansion across the Atlantic, it now has no need for the UK facility.


Clearly the future can’t be bright and bleak at the same time. So is Vestas being over-hasty in closing the plant, or is the government dragging its heels over the grants, investment and legislation that will allow offshore windfarms to be built and connected quickly?


Vestas lays the blame firmly at the government’s feet; last year, it switched production to 44m blades, suited to offshore turbines, following the government’s announcement that it would turn to windpower to reach the target of generating 20 per cent of the UK’s energy by renewable means by 2020. However, it says, the planning regime made the market unstable. It remains convinced that the UK has good wind conditions and is a potentially important market, but says that it can’t keep producing blades while nobody is ordering turbines.


Wind power is, of course, controversial in the UK. Many local groups are opposed to them on aesthetic grounds, and the problem of intermittency — that is, the gaps in generation when the wind isn’t blowing — still hasn’t been fully overcome. Grid connection is also slow, and the transmission system is in need of overhaul, as we’ve argued in The Engineer.


But all of these arguments and problems can be answered with a concerted effort. Supporting wind power is not putting all our eggs in one basket; surely the message must have got through by now that we need all potential sources of energy, working with each other, to fill generation gaps and move to a lower-carbon, less fossil-fuel dependent, more secure energy generation. So a move to make it easier to obtain planning permission for windfarms might not be popular with some voters. But surely the government wouldn’t be that short-sighted? Would it?


Stuart Nathan
Special Projects Editor