COPENHAGEN -- It was a scene familiar to many a Western labor activist: manufacturing workers in a developed country protesting in vain the outsourcing of their jobs overseas. Earlier this month, workers barricaded themselves in Vestas Wind Systems' wind turbine blade factory on Britain's Isle of Wight to try to convince the company not to shut down the plant, dismiss 425 workers and move production to another country.
The only unusual part of the story was that the outsourcing location was not a Third World country. The blade manufacturing jobs were headed toward the United States. The global wind power industry sees it as its most lucrative future market.
After an early lead in wind power generation, the United States was completely overtaken by Europe in the 1980s and 1990s, when countries such as Denmark, Germany and Spain subsidized the industry and helped it survive some very lean years. Now, those investments have paid off. Denmark's Vestas, which started making turbines in 1979 and has since increased its efficiency by 100 times, is now the world's largest producer of wind turbines.
Spain's Gamesa and Germany's Siemens are also big players in the industry. But the pace of onshore turbine installation in northern Europe has tapered off lately and the offshore sector is still in its infancy, plagued by technical and financial difficulties, so companies like Vestas are looking for continued growth elsewhere. With the Obama administration promising big investments in green energy, wind turbine producers see the United States as the key to the industry's future.
"The worst decision you can ever take as a CEO is to lay off people," said Ditlev Engel, Vestas' CEO, in an interview broadcast on BBC. "However, we have been producing turbines in northern Europe and shipping them all over the world. We are now ramping up all over the world to make the products there, and therefore, unfortunately, we cannot see how the market here close by can justify maintaining the present production. We are certain our U.S. initiatives will benefit Vestas for years to come. This is the best long-term view we've had on the U.S. market."
Vestas is rapidly expanding its production base in the United States, where it says it has created more than 1,200 skilled jobs. The company expects that number to climb to more than 4,000 by the end of 2010, if President Obama's Recovery and Reinvestment Plan is carried out. Vestas believes that the Obama-led push to more renewables will stimulate demand and re-establish the United States as the world's largest market for wind turbines. It hopes Congress will pass a national renewable energy standard that will stabilize the U.S. market in the long run.
Last year, Vestas opened a blade factory in Windsor, Colo., hiring 650 people. This year and the next, it will add another blade factory and a nacelle assembly factory in Windsor, as well as tower factories in Brighton and Pueblo, Colo. Vestas is also building up research and development centers in Houston and Boston. It is trying to set up a network of local suppliers of castings, metal fabrication, composites, gears, bearings and electromechanical components through its purchasing office in Chicago.
"With the DOE releasing documents supporting the development of the wind business in the United States, we expect business to pick up over there in the coming quarters," Engel said. "China, the United States and Europe are our main focus areas. Where we have the greatest challenges is in Europe, due to currency developments as well as 'not in my backyard' issues."
All the blades Vestas produced on the Isle of Wight used to be exported to the United States -- at a transportation cost that exceeded the labor cost to make them. When the start of U.S. production made this trans-Atlantic voyage unnecessary, Vestas announced plans last year to convert the Isle of Wight production from 40-meter blades to 44-meter blades for a bigger wind turbine better suited for U.K. onshore and offshore wind energy production.
Vestas took the decision following the U.K. government's commitment last year to produce 35 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. That level is currently 4 percent.
But now the company says the local planning process for the construction of new onshore wind power plants in the United Kingdom "remains an obstacle to the development of a more favorable market," despite excellent wind conditions. "Since offshore wind power is still on a project basis, a large and stable market for onshore wind power is vital to secure a stable production flow," Vestas said.
U.K. projects caught in local doldrums
At least 273 wind power projects totaling nearly 9,500 megawatts are stuck in the planning stages in Britain despite government promises to speed things up, according to the British Wind Energy Association. It takes an average of 15 to 20 months to win a wind farm permit in England and far longer in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the bulk of the wind farms are being developed.
In some extreme cases, applications submitted between 2000 and 2002 have still not been resolved because of complaints and opposition from locals concerned about noise or the perceived unsightliness of the turbines.
"There's been a lot of positive activity from the government in the U.K., but we also need to see it happen at the local level; otherwise, we won't get the turbines up and running," Engel said.
So Vestas fired the barricaded workers, shut down its U.K. plant and will only keep a research and development staff of about 150 workers there, which is subsidized by a British government grant to design, test and manufacture prototypes of the world's largest wind turbine blades.
Vestas executives have said the plant may one day resume building blades for the U.K. market, but only if Britain starts building more wind farms and probably not before 2015. Britain built only 500 megawatts of wind farm capacity last year, compared with 8,500 megawatts built in the United States. This is happening just as the credit markets are starting to thaw and demand for wind turbines is about to pick up again, according to Engel.
"The business case certainty that Vestas provides to its customers is actually helping us now," he said. "We're actually seeing an increase in the activity level. We haven't seen any orders canceled at Vestas. It has been taking longer to get the orders, but we are seeing more big orders coming in now. We're not going back to where we were a year ago. Things take longer; people are more careful. But we are seeing things picking up."
Vestas also laid off nearly 1,150 workers in Denmark this year, along with the 425 in the United Kingdom. The company delivered turbines with a total capacity of only 6 megawatts in the second quarter in the United Kingdom, compared with 158 megawatts in the United States and 152 in China. Greenpeace blames the U.K. government for losing the Isle of Wight jobs to the United States.
"The RBS bankers got £775 million in bonuses for helping bring down the UK economy. By contrast, these men and women who could help Britain build a vibrant new green economy are being snubbed," said Robin Oakley, head of the Greenpeace climate change campaign, in a statement. "The government holds ultimate responsibility for the closure of this factory and the loss of skilled jobs. It is factories like this and engineers like the ones occupying it that Britain desperately needs if ministers are serious about launching a green industrial revolution."
Oakley accused the British government of not following up on its promises to build up wind electricity production in the country.
"Labour promised Britain would install thousands of wind turbines in the coming years," he said. "Are ministers really now saying they'd rather buy those turbines from abroad than make them here in the UK? Letting this factory close is like a football manager saying he's up for the cup then dropping his only goal scorer. It just doesn't make sense."
Siemens sets up shop in Iowa; China beckons, too
For wind turbine producers, what makes sense is building the huge machines where the demand is. Vestas' rival Siemens is also expanding in the United States. Siemens plans to double the capacity of its factory in Fort Madison, Iowa, which was only opened in 2007. It is also building a new plant in Hutchinson, Kan., and a research and development center in Boulder, Colo. Boulder was chosen because of its proximity to institutions such as the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the Colorado Renewable Energy Collaborative, a state-funded program including Colorado State University, the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Along with the United States, Vestas and Siemens see China as a wind power market about to take off. In the second quarter, Vestas made a profit after tax of $61 million, 34 percent lower than the same quarter last year, but it still expects revenue to rise 20 percent to $10.2 billion this year. Europe accounted for 79 percent of revenue in the quarter, with the Americas and the Asia-Pacific region accounting for 11 percent and 10 percent, respectively.
Vestas predicted that in the longer term there will be a more even distribution among the three regions. That can already be seen in the company's order backlog of 3,596 megawatts, or $5.7 billion. Orders from Europe account for 72 percent of the backlog, with 17 percent coming from the Americas and 11 percent from the Asia-Pacific region.
In Europe, Vestas says, the wind turbine market is most active in southern, central and eastern Europe. Activity in the United Kingdom and northern Europe is limited, while the Spanish market is slowing down "due to uncertainty about future settlement schemes."
Looking for governments that provide long-term support
In China, Vestas has five factories in Tianjin, a sales office in Beijing, a new factory in Hohhot and a procurement office in Shanghai and is currently building additional facilities in Xuzhou. It wants the turbines it sells in China to be 100 percent Chinese-made. Siemens is also expanding in China, building a new $85 million plant that will open next year in Shanghai with 400 workers.
"China could soon become the largest wind energy market in the world. We are rigorously advancing the internationalization of our manufacturing network for wind turbines to optimally meet the needs of our customers," said Wolfgang Dehen, CEO of the Siemens Energy Sector, in a statement.
Vestas believes wind will provide 10 percent of the world supply of electricity by 2020, from less than 2 percent today. That means an installed capacity of 1 million megawatts, compared with 122,000 megawatts at the end of last year. In the second quarter, Vestas shipped 618 turbines, down 12 percent from a year ago, with an aggregate capacity of 1,172 megawatts, down 20 percent from a year ago.
The company thinks the slowdown is only temporary, but says it will take government support for the industry to grow fast. "A key prerequisite is having long-term, stable national schemes that provide the industry with the necessary opportunities to plan and invest in employees, technology and production facilities," the company said. Eventually, government support will no longer be needed, although Engel wouldn't venture a timeline.
"As we see the rise in fossil fuel prices, wind is becoming more and more attractive and cleaner and cleaner," he said.