United Kingdom

United Kingdom

A planning victim tells his tale

A small company in Wales put its faith in the government's renewable energy policy when it adapted its engineering facilities to manufacture towers for wind turbines, but order after order has since fallen victim to the planning process blight on wind development in Britain.

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When David Williams decided two years ago to convert his engineering company to manufacturing wind turbine towers, he little thought that he would become an active lobbyist for wind energy. But since then he has brought the plight of UK wind energy component suppliers to the attention of government ministers, a swathe of politicians and the media. His message is that the domestic market is stagnating due to the planning system's stranglehold on further wind development.

Williams' company, Cambrian Engineering, at Bangor in north Wales, is one of the few major, British owned manufacturers of wind energy components left in the UK. But the company has had a rocky ride since it entered the business. Urged on by government assurances of a burgeoning market for renewable energy components, Cambrian actively sought customers from among the wind industry. It invested in adapting its facilities for the manufacture of towers and now competes successfully, securing orders from Danish companies NEG Micon, Bonus, and Vestas, Dutch WindMaster, Zond of California and Britain's own Renewable Energy Systems. Yet the onward march of wind power into the British energy scene has not been what Williams, or indeed the government, had anticipated.

The Department of Trade and Industry had confidently predicted orders for at least 100 towers annually for six to seven years. The reality is a far cry from this. In the first 24 weeks of this year the company has produced only eight towers. Williams points the finger of blame at the planning system. "There are hundreds of megawatts of wind farms waiting for development that have got NFFO [Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation] contracts, but they can't get planning. That is the problem."

In the beginning

Cambrian's involvement with wind energy began in May 1996 when Williams attended a seminar in Cardiff organised by the Welsh Development Agency (WDA) and the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA). It brought together European wind turbine manufacturers and Welsh companies who were being encouraged to supply components. Before the seminar, Williams had never considered supplying the wind industry. "We knew of wind farms going up, but it didn't occur to us we could actually handle something of that scale."

Resulting from the conference was an agreement between Cambrian and a Danish wind turbine manufacturer, Nordtank, for turbine towers for Mynydd Gorddu wind farm in Ceredigion. Crucially, Nordtank was to provide technical support to show Cambrian the "tricks of the trade" of tower building. But then came the first setback. "After we had begun to adapt our premises to build towers, there were very serious planning problems with Mynydd Gorddu," explains Williams. "There we were, set up to build towers with no towers to build."

Having made both the investment and the commitment, Cambrian tendered to build towers for other turbine manufacturers. An order resulted from WindMaster for four turbine towers for Great Eppleton wind cluster in Northumbria. WindMaster followed up with another for six towers for a project in Holland. Cambrian, meanwhile, was suffering from lack of technical back-up. "The whole premise of our investment was based on having some technical support in starting up," explains Williams. "We were managing to build good quality towers, but it was taking a crippling amount of time and effort." Its first tower took the company six weeks to build. By the end of the WindMaster contracts, Cambrian had managed to reduce this to one tower every two weeks.

The production rate was improved to a tower a week with an order for ten from Bonus for National Wind Power's Llyn Alaw wind farm. "At that stage we were beginning to feel we were cracking it, but the cost had been very damaging and we were in a financially weak position," Williams admits.

Eventually, more than a year later than expected, Mynydd Gorddu was granted final planning consent. True to its word, Nordtank -- which had by now become NEG Micon -- sent its experts to provide Cambrian with the long hoped for technical support. One month into the contract, the company was able to reduce the number of shifts from three a day to two and was producing two towers a week. "It proved to the banks and everybody else I had been trying to keep on board that we could build towers very successfully," says Williams.

Into battle

"At that stage, we should all have lived happily ever after, but it was not to be," he observes dryly. Fate, in the form of British planners, intervened once again. The company's next order, from the UK's Wind Energy Group (WEG), had to be put on hold when Welsh Secretary Ron Davies called in WEG's plans for an extension to its Cemmaes wind farm. What happened at Cemmaes typified the state of the UK market, which by then was practically stagnant with many developers either locked in battle with local planning authorities or engaged in planning inquiries.

As Williams saw his home market slip increasingly out from under him, he took up his pen in protest at the damning effect of planning delays and siting permit refusals on Britain's fledgling renewables industry, particularly its component manufacturers. As well as taking his story to the Welsh press, he wrote to Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, Energy Minister John Battle, Betty Williams, the local member of parliament, and Under Secretary for Wales Peter Hain. Williams letters call for a mechanism that obliges planners to accept a proportion of wind energy development in their local authority area.

Cambrian also waded into the planning battlefield to draw attention to the jobs that depend on wind development. Williams is preparing a pre-inquiry statement-of-case in support of the Cemmaes application -- and each of the company's 50 employees has written to Conwy County Borough Council backing National Wind Power's application for a wind farm locally at Pentrefoelas.

Home market vital

Without a strong UK market, it is almost impossible to have an export industry, argues Williams. "How can UK companies compete with the Dutch, the Germans and the Danes when they have got state of the art technology developed over 20 years, and we have got virtually nothing in the UK?" Nonetheless, contracts from overseas have helped the company survive. Its most recent contract, worth £1.5 million and for 27 towers, is for two projects on Crete by Enron Wind Overseas Development, a subsidiary of US energy giant Enron Corporation, using Zond turbines. Eighteen towers are destined for Chandras and nine for Megali Vrissi. This order secures jobs at Cambrian, including the 19 created for the switch to making towers.

Cambrian clearly takes pride in its product. Williams claims that the staff enjoy producing towers which now account for some 80% of the company's work. During leaner times it has managed to claw in other steel fabrication contracts. "But we don't want to be in the business of doing simple steel work," he says. "We want to do good, high quality work. That's what we're about."

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