Lawsuits loom over service monopoly -- In search of the black box

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Danish turbine manufacturer Vestas is examining its legal rights to maintain control of service on its own turbines. The company has been threatened with lawsuits in Germany and the European Union for what German wind energy association Bundesverband Windenergie (BWE) calls an illegal monopoly and obstruction of free competition.

German turbine owners complain they want the option for non-Vestas service companies to do maintenance on their Vestas machines. Currently that is not possible. Vestas has kept confidential key documentation on certain turbine components, their assembly and function and spare parts.

The company turned over a stack of documents to BWE last autumn, but BWE complains that the documents are incomplete. While Vestas has promised to deliver the remaining information, German turbine owners have threatened to take the case to the European Court of Justice.

Wind turbine service attracts a steady source of income for the turbine makers themselves. The sector itself is growing, with many independent firms coming into the picture. Many of these are upstarts from previous service employees from the turbine companies.

Vestas has been a special case among manufacturers, however, partly because it has been more secretive and partly because other turbine types have not been so complicated to repair. While the special pitch control function is part of the challenge, Vestas machines under repair and service require a control device connected via fibre-optic cable. With this "black box," the turbine can be controlled from inside the nacelle.

By restricting competitors' access to the service work and the black box in particular, Vestas can more or less charge whatever it wants to, argue critics in Germany and, increasingly, Denmark. The company's new service director, Søren Lock, says turbine owners receive the documentation they need, but the black box is still considered "Vestas-specific knowledge."

Lock has asked Vestas' legal department to investigate whether the company's monopoly in this area is permissible and whether Vestas can sell the control device to its customers under the condition that it not be used commercially -- that is, by competing service firms.

The Danish wind turbine owners association confirms that it has received an increasing number of requests asking for other service options on Vestas turbines than Vestas itself. "[The turbine owners] blame it on the price, delayed service or just dissatisfaction in Vestas' treatment of them," says the association's Strange Skriver.

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