Tuesday, 4 August 2009

A comment on Vestas

Dare I say anything about the occupation of the Vestas wind-turbine blade factory on the Isle of Wight? As with many things I have very divided feelings on this. On one hand I wish the staff at the factory all the best in getting their jobs back. I also think that they are doing a valuable service in highlighting the poor state of the UK’s renewable energy industry and the gap between the rhetoric and reality of the new ‘green economy’. With luck their actions will spur the government to support and invest in other renewable energy facilities around the country so that they can be grown and helped before they get to the point of closing down. It may also be that they have been treated badly by the government and the company. So in that sense I support them.

However, I do have some concerns with the statements I have heard calling for the plant to be nationalised. I am not defending Vestas, as I don’t know the detail of what they promised, but nationalising a Danish-owned plant which makes wind turbine blades for particular types of turbine would not necessarily be helpful, and could cause real problems for the UK if it were to try and encourage other companies to locate here. The government would be effectively stealing the technology developed by the company, with potentially long term consequences. Even if we nationalised it, and got the technology, I understand we would then be left with a plant which produces 40-metre blades for the V82 turbine, one which is not commonly used in the UK, and not used offshore (all of these blades were exported to the US). In the process we would presumably scare away any companies which develop and build blades more suitable to the UK’s needs. We would still need to buy the turbines from Vestas in Denmark in any case.

That is not to say that if the protestors and government change Vestas mind and get them to invest in a new plant then that would not be a good thing. It would. Perhaps though, what we should be calling for is an end to support for fossil fuels and far greater investment in renewable energy research, development and deployment. This will develop home-grown companies and encourage established ones to set up here. Perhaps the Isle of Wight will be a good home for this, in recognition of the role it is playing? We might also do well with a dedicated renewable energy bank or bond system.

If we are to have a nationalised wind turbine industry, it must be built - it cannot be simply achieved by buying up a few assets from a Danish company, particularly one which supplies a quarter of the world’s wind turbines and which we will need to work with in the future to realise our offshore ambitions.

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