Analysis: MHI-Vestas £200m UK plan short on detail

UK: Earlier this month, MHI-Vestas announced plans to lease Vestas' production facilities at its Isle of Wight plant to produce blades for the V164 8MW turbine, the first part of a wider £200 million (EUR 250 million) UK production strategy.

The mould for the 80-metre V164 blade at Vestas Isle of Wight plant

In a statement, MHI-Vestas said production at the site would begin in Q2 2015. The move is part of "a wider industrialisation strategy in the UK" that would be worth around £200 million and 800 jobs, the company added. Yet there was little news of where this wider investment would fall.

There has long been speculation that MHI-Vestas will follow Siemens and build a dedicated factory in the UK to assemble the V164. However, this is a bigger step than simply using an existing plant. And it is worth noting that Siemens' Hull factory will make the blades and nacelles and handle assembly.

MHI-Vestas' announcement has little actual substance beyond the £200 million figure and the Isle of Wight location. The company was unable to comment when asked about the annual manufacturing capacity of the site. There is still no news of where or even whether it would build an assembly plant in the UK.

Speaking at RenewableUK's annual conference, where the move was announced, MHI-Vestas CEO Jens Tommerup described the plan as the first stage of our industrial strategy in the UK. "We are not announcing specific years for leasing," he added. The £200 million of economic activity is for the full establishment of manufacturing in UK... there's no specific timeline on it. It will depend on the market."

When pressed, MHI-Vestas' only elaboration was the prototype blades would be stored on the mainland at Southampton before being sent on to the "pre-assembly site". In the likelihood the 80-metre blades would be shipped to an assembly facility. It's difficult to imagine it being feasbibe for the eventual destination to be too far from England's south coast.

The decision to manufacture on the Isle of Wight will be particularly disappointing to the people of north Kent. In 2011, Vestas announced plans to build a factory for the V164 in Sheerness in Kent, which would have manufactured blades and nacelles. Vestas cancelled this a year later despite securing construction permission. At thetime, the company blamed a lack of orders and absence of government support. However, on the face of it, little has changed over the past two years.

The actual announcement was made with some fanfare at the RenewableUK conference by energy minister Ed Davey. But there have been questions over whether MHI-Vestas is entirely happy about making such an investment in the UK.

Local sourcing

Despite a number of high-profile projects biting the dust this year, the UK is by far the biggest player in offshore, both in terms of current installations and the amount of potential. At the same time, it is notable (not least in Denmark) that these projects could be equally well served from a base in mainland Europe.

This was outlined by Tommerup himself. When asked by Windpower Monthly earlier this year about the prospect of building a UK plant, Tommerup hinted it would have to because "some countries have local-sourcing rules".

Officially at least, the UK is local-sourcing free, but Tommerup knew what he was talking about. There have been only the vaguest references from the government, using phrases such as "sustainability", as well as government-commissioned reports into the UK supply chain's ability to service the offshore sector. Politically though, with the current anti-wind climate in the UK, it is a very different question.

MHI-Vestas, like a number of other prospective offshore manufacturers, has been looking at building a plant in the UK. Alstom has been examining the east coast while Gamesa/Areva seem committed to Scotland. However, with all three companies embroiled in joint-venture negotiations (Gamesa-Areva) and takeovers (Alstom by GE) it looks like Vestas is the next big investment bet for the UK offshore.