Clipper sinks Britannia in refocus

UK: The UK's plan to use its Round Three 33GW offshore wind programme to stimulate technology and regenerate deprived areas of the country has taken a hit with the collapse of Clipper Windpower's Britannia project. The government-funded initiative aimed to design and build a 10MW turbine in north-east England while creating hundreds of jobs.

The Britannia set-up would have been based on the doorstep of the largest offshore wind market in the world. Yet Clipper's new owner UTC, which acquired control of the company at the start of the year, has decided the project is a step in the wrong direction.

In a statement to explain the decision Pratt & Whitney (P&W), the division of UTC controlling Clipper, said: "In the future, we believe Clipper can bring considerable talent and capability to offshore wind. However, at this time, Clipper's activities will focus on customers' immediate needs by way of further development of land-based wind turbine technologies, including the 2.5MW Liberty wind turbine, and accelerating next-generation technologies."

In 2010, plans for a Britannia blade factory were launched amid much fanfare by Clipper founder Jim Dehlsen and then-UK prime minister Gordon Brown. The aim was to build a 4,000 square-metre factory employing 500 people by the third quarter of 2010, create jobs and regenerate one of the most run-down areas of England.

A fair proportion of this was to be funded by the UK taxpayer. According to Clipper, it received £4.46 million (€5.04 million) from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) in 2009. Additionally the Crown Estate, which owns the seabed around the UK, ordered a prototype for 2012 - its first ever order for a wind turbine.

However, neither factory nor turbine was built. There were questions about the viability of the Britannia project from the start. In an interview with Windpower Monthly shortly after the launch, the project's director and former head of the UK's wind energy association, David Still, said the turbine would be based on Clipper's 2.5MW Liberty turbine.

In the wind industry, the most successful turbines are based on incremental improvements to existing proven designs. When the Crown Estate bought into the Britannia project in 2008, the Liberty platform was plagued with issues and failing components.

Speaking about the decision in the aftermath of the project's collapse, the Crown Estate was vague about its reason for purchasing the turbine, what it planned to do with it or Britannia's merits from a technical point of view. In a statement, the Crown Estate said: "The Clipper project had an important role in stimulating the offshore wind turbine market in the UK, resulting in the development of the next generation of offshore wind turbines."

Bad times

Clipper encountered other problems besides Britannia last year, with poor sales and cash flow issues, leading to discussions with industrial group and minority shareholder UTC about a possible takeover that went through in January.

By May, industry rumours were circulating that Britannia had stalled. Questioned by Windpower Monthly about Britannia during the American Wind Energy Association conference in California, Clipper did not confirm or deny the project was in trouble. It was only in August that UTC finally came clean about its plans.

According to insiders at the company, UTC had looked at the project and been unhappy both with its rate of progress and the design itself.

P&W has not given any details of what the Britannia team based at the New and Renewable Energy Centre testing facility in Blyth, north-east England, is doing. A P&W spokesman said: "We only have a small team working at the facility in Blyth, as most of the engineering and support staff are located in Carpinteria, California."

Windpower Monthly understands the company employs 10-20 people at the plant, mostly in an engineering capacity. P&W was also unable to comment on what the Blyth team is now working on. One source at the facility said the team had been talking about developing an onshore turbine.

The Crown Estate said it had received a refund from Clipper for the prototype it never received. But the manufacturer may yet receive a call from Decc. A spokesman for the department said Clipper had never received £4.46 million. In fact, only £300,000 was handed over. "(To get the remainder) they had to reach certain milestones in the project and they didn't." As for the £300,000, Decc said: "We are exploring the potential to be repaid and are trying to figure out how we can go about that."

Now Britannia has gone the same way as Brown and Dehlsen, who respectively lost the general election and left as part of the UTC takeover, the UK government is not afraid to follow the same route. The doomed project looks set to be supplanted by other government-backed initiatives from the likes of Vestas, Gamesa, Siemens and GE.

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