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United Kingdom

The end of a long and troubled road

Carter Technology Ltd of Britain went into liquidation on January 31. All 15 staff were fired at the end of 1996 after a planned rescue package by London-based QB Investments failed to materialise. Production of the original Carter turbine ceased in autumn 1996 while a new Mark II machine may never see the light of day.

The future of the Carter wind turbine looks increasingly doubtful after Carter Technology Ltd of Britain went into liquidation on January 31. All 15 staff were fired at the end of 1996 after a planned rescue package by London-based QB Investments failed to materialise. Production of the original Carter turbine ceased in autumn 1996 while a new Mark II machine may never see the light of day.

Carter wind technology has had a chequered career. Although staff who have worked on Carter turbine development on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean have consistently remained enthusiastic about the lightweight and flexible concept, ownership of the technology has changed hands several times.

The turbine was first developed in America in the 1970s by Jay Carter Jr from Texas. Very different from most of its competitors, it has two flexible blades and a slender steel tower which is raised and lowered by a winch and guyed into place, so no crane is needed for installation or maintenance. The turbine is lightweight and its foundations can be much smaller than for a fixed tower. Bob Cann, who was Carter Technology's senior stress analyst, says the machine's ability to be winched into place makes it ideally suited to areas of the world without cranes readily available.

Rights to the technology were bought from the Carter family by UK company Carter Wind Turbines with the backing of British millionaire businessman and renewable energy enthusiast Tony Marmont. He later transferred the final assets of the company to the UK from America after an acrimonious split with the Carters. But the company had difficulty selling the machine to the European market. Dave Corbett, former managing director, summarises the problem: "It was an innovative machine in a market that demanded low risk technology." European buyers wanted three bladed, low tip speed, quiet machines with solid towers and blades, he says. The Carter turbine, however, was relatively small, with two blades and a "soft" tower. With a machine like that, the buyer really wants cast iron warranties which a small company like Carter could not deliver, Corbett explains. He points out that the turbine was cheaper than its competitors, but its economic advantage was eroded by the higher cost of financing.

Then two years ago, Marmont sold out to Indian businessman V.N.A.S. Chandran and the company began its latest incarnation as Carter Technology Ltd. Chandran -- owner of Coimbatore company Sangeetha Textiles -- had his sights set on the expanding Indian market and had initial orders for 100 turbines for southern India.

Radical overhaul

Meanwhile, the company's hopes for the future rested on development of a new, improved and certified version of the design. Carter Technology secured government funding to develop the Mark II turbine and the original design was radically overhauled -- particularly with Germanischer Lloyd certification in mind. Bob Cann explains: "We reviewed the Mark I design to improve its strength and reliability and increase energy capture at lower wind speeds. With Germanischer Lloyd approval it would have been a winner."

But cash flow problems led to the company's first large scale financial crisis in December 1995. Instalments of payment to Tony Marmont for the purchase of the company had become delayed, so Marmont's company (Beacon Energy) called in the receiver. Carter Technology successfully fought off the receivership order, but at the cost of revenue from Great Orton wind farm in Cumbria -- Britain's only wind farm of Carter turbines -- which from then on went direct to Marmont. "It became more and more difficult to find the resources for carrying on the development of the Mark II and establishing the tooling for the 17 metre blades of the new machine," says Cann.

The company limped on until the final blow came last summer when the Indian government banned further imports of uncertified wind turbines. This blocked Carter from fulfilling its export orders since the Mark I is not certified. Only 35 out of 100 machines were eventually delivered to India.

Staff at the company were given notice to quit while Chandran -- who it has not been possible to contact -- looked for new financing. QB Investments agreed to inject £1.5 million into the firm and staff were reinstated. It was not to last. QB's funds never materialised and according to Cann, no salaries were paid in November and December. Employees were again made redundant and the receiver called in.

Cann says all Carter Technology staff feel badly let down. He particularly regrets the abandonment of the Mark II machine -- now 75% complete. "Carter had gathered a strong and enthusiastic technical team, with exactly the right mix of skills for the project. Despite not being paid they stayed on because they believe strongly in the potential of the new machine," he says. "Unless finance can be found to pick up the project, all this work is heading for the scrap heap and UK industry will have thrown away another commercial winner."

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