United States

United States

Market forces demand lean, innovative future for supply chain

UNITED STATES: Uncertainty over the industry subsidy, the production tax credit (PTC), and low-cost competition from natural gas has made the situation within the wind industry in the US incredibly tough. Many players have exited the market or diversified out of wind within the past year.

Dynamic load… The D49 turbine blade signalled the arrival of innovative manfacturer Blade Dynamics
Dynamic load… The D49 turbine blade signalled the arrival of innovative manfacturer Blade Dynamics

However, while the extension of the PTC has boosted orders, it is not expected to have a major long-term effect as there is still no policy certainty post-2014. This means that an industry that has spent the past ten years focusing on growth is now having to look more closely at becoming more efficient to survive.

Theo Botha, head of sales and marketing at blade manufacturer Blade Dynamics, says that in order to be competitive in the US, the wind industry needs to be both "big and good". In recent times so much effort has gone into becoming bigger that there have not been sufficient strides in innovation, he says.

There are also those who believe that innovation has suffered as a result of attention being focused on subsidies. Patrick Jenevein, chief executive of wind-farm developer Tang Energy Group, believes that research and development has been a casualty of the pursuit of subsidies - resulting in a less efficient product.

Counterproductive

"Without subsidies, the wind industry would be forced to take a hard fresh look at its product. Fewer wind farms would be built, eliminating the market-distorting glut," Jenevein wrote in the Wall Street Journal in April.

"And if there is truly a need for wind energy, entrepreneurs who improve the business's fundamentals will find a way to compete," he added.

Tower manufacturer Broadwind Energy has used a strategy of diversification to keep its head above water. Having managed to stay the course, it is now seeing an increase in orders for its urbine towers. Meanwhile, blade maker Blade Dynamics has maintained its focus on innovation and, benefiting from its relatively small business size, has been able to adapt relatively easily to changing circumstances (see profiles, overleaf).

PROFILE: BROADWIND ENERGY DIVERSIFICATION INSIDE AND OUT

While recent market conditions have seen many players exit the supply chain in the US wind industry, wind tower manufacturing and services company Broadwind, based in Cicero, Illinois, has emerged as a success story.

The company recently announced that it had won three new orders for wind towers worth a combined $79 million.

"Deals are getting signed; people are ramping up their production facilities again," says Broadwind CEO Peter Duprey. "The whole industry went through either a shutdown or idling at the end of last year and is now quickly trying to gear back up again."

While many players in the wind-industry supply chain have exited and many plants have been closed or repurposed. Broadwind remains very much in play as a result of diversification. "Originally we were a pure player in the wind energy sector in the US," says John Segvich, the company's head of communications. "Now when you look at Broadwind, we have an offer of integrated solutions, which include wind-turbine towers and a services business for drive trains and blades."

Complementary

Diversification has also meant taking Broadwind's expertise in welding large structures, such as wind towers, and its core capabilities of gearing, welding and services, and looking into complementary markets. The company is now also involved in oil and gas, mining and steel.

Broadwind is likely to remain a diversified player. "The lack of policy clarity in the US is a challenge. We are a public company, so in the best interests of investors, diversified play is the way to go," Segvich says.

However, Broadwind remains committed to the wind industry. Many wind turbine manufacturers are looking at taller towers, larger rotors and more powerful turbines, which is pushing the industry to evolve.

Broadwind made a move towards taller, heavier towers from an early stage and so was well positioned in the market to meet the needs of customers looking for that type of tower.

For the future, Broadwind intends to concentrate on leveraging its core competencies of gearing, welding and services and how to apply these within the wind sector.

Customer intimacy

"We are pushing customer and industry diversification," says Segvich. "We have diversified outside wind, but we are also diversifying inside the wind sector.

"We have added new tower customers over the past few years and we are adding new services for customers as well, so we are building customer intimacy in the market."

 

PROFILE: BLADE DYNAMICS FLEXIBILITY TO INNOVATE

Blade Dynamics (BD) has been affected by US market "horror show", says head of sales and marketing Theo Botha, but has benefited from the advantages in being a smaller player willing to change and innovate.

The company was started in 2007 on the UK's Isle of Wight. Its founders recognised that future blades would need to be longer and lighter and that making larger things in one piece was much harder. It developed a modular technology.

In 2010, US wind component manufacturer AMSC acquired a 25% stake, increasing the company's available capital, and BD took possession of former NASA premises in Louisiana. It manufactured its first 49-metre D49 blade, which was then GL tested and certified. In 2012 BD was awarded a £15.5-million contract by the UK's Energy Technology Institute to design and build what could become the largest offshore turbine blade.

Compromised

Botha believes some large US players may have become victims of their own success, with their focus on growth resulting in compromises in innovation. Now, to continue to be competitive, wind needs to innovate to become more efficient. In addition, large supply-chain partners have a simple relationship with supply and demand: a fall in demand results in an immediate need to reduce head count, which in turn diverts attention from innovation.

Botha explains that another advantage of modular technology is that it requires little factory space or local investment: "Blades are normally only made from liquids and fabrics, which are delivered in bulk to a large processing facility in the end-user country. Because we have smaller modular components these can be shipped from country to country relatively inexpensively."

Botha is aware of the need to cut installation costs. The large size of blade factories affects the cost of wind because it takes longer to get up and running. BD can deliver blades - the largest, hardest to ship components - and manufacture them from a standing start wherever they are needed with a low capital expenditure. Botha says this increases wind's flexibility and ability to withstand shocks.

He criticises the way the wind business has been managed at government level in the US but says that, while the industry needs certainty over the production tax credit, ongoing subsidies are neither possible nor beneficial.

"Essentially they should be there to incubate the industry until it's as strong as it needs to be. Blade Dynamics exists with the sole purpose of reducing the cost of wind through composite technology, which puts us in a position to benefit from the current conditions.

"Companies that are able to tolerate the situation will survive."

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