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United Kingdom

Trading in cashmere Wool and wind

A small British company is growing bigger with steadily increasing sales of small wind turbines for supplying electricity to remote communities the world over.

When Gordon Proven and his brother Geoff set up in business together 15 years ago, they never envisaged they would be trading wind turbines for cashmere wool today. Yet that is one of the unpredictable results from having a product that is in demand in Outer Mongolia. The 2.5 kW wind turbines made by their company, Proven Engineering, at its factory in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, Scotland have a large potential market among the nomadic tribes in Mongolia.

According to Gordon Proven, the company has been under pressure to sell its machines to Outer Mongolia. He explains that the nomads are beginning to settle down into groups of about 50 families. "We can supply one village with one windmill which is very economical for them." Proven's proposal for an integrated village electricity scheme was accepted by the Mongolian government department for renewable energy. The potential market is several thousands of villages, he claims. " The problem is that they have got no money, but they have got cashmere. Lots of it."

Turning with an apology to answer his mobile phone, Proven quickly completes a brief conversation "That was someone who has found a chap in Billericay who deals in cashmere and who is willing to do trade. So we will be trading windmills for cashmere," he explains.

Outer Mongolia is not the only remote market in the world for Proven wind turbines. The company is also selling them to the Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic. The islands' government had been looking for years for a wind turbine that would withstand the severe winter weather there, says Gordon Proven. The company was about to send a machine out for trials, but the process was short-circuited when a farmer became impatient and bought one directly from the company himself. It proved so successful, says Proven, that the Falkland Islands government approved the turbine and is now granting generous subsidies to Falklanders of up to 70% of the cost of the machine. Since then the turbine has come unscathed through the Falklands winter despite gales for 60 days. It survived where its competitors melted, he recounts with some satisfaction. Seven machines have been installed so far in the islands with more in the pipeline.

Home market too

The Proven is a downwind machine with three flexible polypropylene blades and no tail. As well as the 2.5 kW size, there are two new sizes -- 6 kW and 600W. The 6 kW machine is basically an upsized version of the 2.5 kW technology, says Proven. It was designed for the central heating market -- particularly in rural areas which are not connected to the gas mains. "We see that as a mass home market." It is also suitable for large houses, hotels, small businesses and farms, he adds. The latest machine to come out will be the 600W that he claims was produced in response to customer requests. This is mainly to provide energy supplies to remote technical equipment.

The 2.5 kW unit is the most popular Proven model, along with its 2.2 kW predecessor. Orders for it have come from many corners of the world, including the Azores and Canary Islands, New Zealand, and Ethiopia. But the company is concentrating its marketing efforts on just two countries: India and South Africa. This is where it sees the greatest potential for the 2.5 kW size. "In India there are hundreds of thousands of villages and farms without electricity," says Proven. "We will have to manufacture locally, so it is a matter of finding a reliable Indian partner and setting up some kind of joint venture." In the nearer future he expects to be able to sell the turbines to communications organisations, the army and the government. But the company has its sights firmly set on the mass market. "We want to sell to every village and every farm."

British Steel backing

Proven's marketing drive is being part funded through an investment by British Steel -- formerly a large local employer which has a policy of helping businesses set up in areas affected by steel closures. Additional loan funding has come from Strathclyde Region and Kilmarnock Councils. But in spite of demand for its product the company is wary of expanding too fast. It prefers a two-stage approach.

The first stage is to develop viable home and export markets, and to bring on to the market its two new wind turbines. The second stage -- some two or three years down the line -- is to raise the money to fund a move to mass production and build new premises. At this stage British Steel would probably become equity holders, says Proven. "We had to persuade British Steel and other people that the two stage approach was right for us. All these financial people want to go for the big bang. We wanted to go for a little bang followed by a big bang."

But Proven's most pressing need at the moment is for larger premises. The company has outgrown its existing factory on a Kilmarnock industrial estate. "We had a long term plan to build a purpose-built factory cum test centre and demonstration unit with an educational bias," Gordon Proven says. "But we will have to bring part of that plan forward because we do not have any room to expand where we are at the moment."

Proven Engineering today employs 13 people. Half of its work is tied up with producing automation systems -- mainly for the power industry. This side of the business has helped fund research and development into wind turbines since 1981. It was the company's first SMART award from the government for 75% of research and development costs that allowed it in 1990 to devote more time and resources into developing wind turbines. Since then it has received two further SMART awards and has been manufacturing turbines for the last four years.

Meanwhile, research and development into renewable energy remains an integral element of Proven Engineering. It is developing a hydraulic wind pumping system for desalination plants which was the subject of the company's most recent SMART award. Proven is also looking into micro hydro and solar systems. "Windmills are not our only business," he points out. "Windmills are a start. Renewable energy is our business."

He has a long term vision for the future and becomes impatient with targets for renewable energy that he considers to be too low. "I am working towards 100% renewable input for the country's needs," he claims. "What I am working for is that every house and every business in the UK -- and the rest of the world -- can run off renewable energy of one sort or another."

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