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Vestas' woes not all home grown

WORLDWIDE: It is fortunate the wind industry is not judged on the performance of individual players.

If it were, then the wind-energy sector would be in a tricky place right now. Following on from a series of profit warnings brought on by production issues and overcapacity, the world number one wind-turbine manufacturer, Vestas, has restructured and cut around 10% of its workforce, from admin staff to some of its highest-profile executives.

Thanks to 7.4GW in orders, Vestas looks certain to both hold on to the top spot and keep its factories busy. However, it has lost face. While still impressive, the order book falls short of the upper end of the company's own 2011 forecast. Perhaps more importantly, its management has acquired something of a credibility problem as a result of several production-led own goals and significant overspending on R&D.

Vestas chief executive Ditlev Engel has blamed some of the overcapacity on market forces, although it could be said that the company should have been better prepared, seeing the state of the world economy. But the issues at Vestas' Lubeck-Travemunde generator plant in northern Germany are entirely of its own making. The company's failure to bring the factory online has led to expensive delivery delays for V112 3MW and 2MW Gridstreamer turbines that are unforgivable for a company of Vestas' stature and experience.

Speaking to Windpower Monthly, Engel appeared contrite about the mistakes. But you can only spin such a line for so long before investors demand change. The departure of executives like technology R&D president Finn Strom Madsen and offshore president Anders Soe-Jensen could be construed as part of this. However, many industry insiders feel that if they were responsible for issues like R&D costs and poor performance in the offshore market then Engel is too.

It is easy to speculate on the reasons for Vestas' misfortune. In fairness, the industry is becoming more challenging and the days in the mid-2000s when one company could own more than 30% of the market now seem like the distant past.

Increased competitiveness in the sector is highlighted by the race for intellectual property rights. In the US alone, patent applications for turbine components have shot up, proving the spirit of collaboration that existed in the 1990s has long since vanished. Maybe it is a sign of the industry's maturity that companies are working this way. However, there are reasons for concern. One only has to look at the smart-phone sector and the Microsoft-Apple coalition against Google - to win intellectual property rights to elements of the latter's Android operating system - to see where this can lead.

Other challenges come in the form of pricing. The US has accused China and Vietnam of dumping cheap turbine towers on its market. Once again, overcapacity is cited as one cause. And continuing uncertainty surrounds the future of the US market pending the renewal of the production tax credit. Vestas is threatening to reduce its US staff by 1,600 if this does not happen.

Despite the apparent bad news, there is a lot to be optimistic about in the wind sector. According to Windpower Intelligence, there are 34.6GW of projects targeted for completion in and around 2012 in North America and at least 37.8GW in Europe. Add to that the rise of emerging markets and there is plenty of business to fight for. But the companies doing the fighting will need to be prepared both operationally and technologically.

James Quilter is associate editor of Windpower Monthly

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