Wind turbine protest reveals a curious weakness in renewables

From 'save vestas' blogThere have been some unpleasant allegations over the occupation of the wind turbine factory on the UK’s Isle of Wight, and most of them concern the protesters’ access to food.  Almost 20 workers are continuing to occupy the factory, owned by Vestas, to protest its closure, and the protestors say that a big fence has been erected, reportedly to try and prevent supporters passing food to the protestors.

The protesters and their supporters said the company was trying to do this by erecting a seven-foot gate around the building. A total of five people have been arrested at the site, and there were reports that they were trying to get food to the protesters. The police have stated that they are not stopping protestors getting food: that was a matter for the company. But where is Vestas in all of this? Rather than coming out with a robust defence and a good finger-pointing at, say, market forces or government policy, the company is only issuing the barest of peeps to the media; the odd statement (sometimes emailed, from the look of it, although we were lucky enough to hear it in person) along the lines of ‘discussions are progressing’ is being given out.

Now we don’t like to gripe about companies’ PR policies, mostly because it’s usually boring to non-journalists. But some of their silence is baffling. By contrast, it is astoundingly easy to get in touch with the protestors (we long ago entered the age of wired-up protests, after all). One of them, Mark Smith, told me this afternoon the company actually had begun providing them with food this morning, although he said it was oddly provided amounts difficult to divide amongst the protesters (10 sandwiches, 10 cereal bars, etc).

Perhaps it’s because, as a renewables company, Vestas is unaccustomed to being the target of angry protests. Fossil fuel companies are a little more experienced at this game: even Drax’s generally media-shy chief executive Dorothy Thompson gave an interview to the Guardian this month, following the trials of coal plant protesters. She also wrote an op/ed for the newspaper.

But it’s odd that the company hasn’t broadcast the fact that it is providing food (however scant), and it’s odd that I could not even get them to clarify another simple fact: the Department of Energy and Climate Change and various internet folk are saying that the company made blades for the US markets. As far as we can tell, this is rubbish. (See update below)

For one thing, in an interview the company’s chief executive, Ditlev Engel, gave the FT when it first announced it was closing the plant in April, he specifically blamed problems getting planning approval for UK wind installations.

Another reason, however, is aptly summed up in a New York Times story today: it’s quite a hassle just to transport enormous turbine blades across a few towns, never mind across continents. Other components are relatively easy, but the Isle of Wight factory made blades. It’s true that Vestas are expanding in the US and it’s possible that they made some blades there for the US market, but that wasn’t the plant’s focus.

Which begs the original question: what does this say about the prospects for wind in the UK?

Update: Apparently we were wrong; a voicemail from the company (we could not catch the name of the person who left it but are trying to find out) says the Isle of Wight factory only ever made blades for the US. More to follow…

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