Europe’s Wind Industry Is Stumbling When It’s Needed Most

Source: By Stanley Reed, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Makers of wind turbines are reporting mounting losses, and fret about losing out to rivals from China, as countries chase ambitious clean energy targets.

Wind turbines north of Beijing. Chinese turbine manufacturers, having honed their production at home, are expanding to overseas markets.
Gilles Sabrié for The New York Times

These should be great times to be in the wind energy business, especially in Europe. Governments here have long promoted offshore wind projects, and those efforts have accelerated since Russia started cutting natural gas shipments in its war against Ukraine.

“We need clean, we need cheaper and we need homegrown power,” Ursula von der Leyen, the European Union president, said in August.

But Europe’s wind turbine makers, the crown jewels of the region’s green energy industry and a source of manufacturing expertise, are reporting losses and laying off workers. Their problems stem partly from lingering supply chain issues and competition from Chinese manufacturers, and the issues could ultimately hinder Europe’s, and even the world’s, ambitions to quickly develop emission-free energy sources.

This month, Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy, a Madrid-based company that is the premier maker of offshore wind turbines, reported an annual loss of 940 million euros ($965 million). The company has announced a cost-cutting program that is likely to lead to 2,900 job losses, or nearly 11 percent of its work force.

Vestas Wind Systems, the world’s largest maker of turbines, recently reported a loss of 147 million euros (about $151 million) for the third quarter.

General Electric, a large maker of wind turbines in the United States and Europe, has also struggled in its clean energy businesses. The company said last month that its renewable energy unit was likely to record $2 billion in losses this year.

Several problems are battering the industry, including rising costs for materials and shipping, as well as logistics snags, some of them a legacy of the pandemic. As a result, prices agreed on earlier for turbines, which cost millions of dollars apiece and can add up to hundreds of billions for large offshore wind farms, can result in huge losses for the manufacturers when they are delivered.

“Every time we sell a turbine, we lose 8 percent,” Henrik Andersen, the chief executive of Vestas, said in an interview.

A ship in Hull, England, receiving a turbine blade made by Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy, which a reported a $940 million loss this year.
Suzie Howell for The New York Times

At the same time, a race to create bigger, more powerful turbines has meant that manufacturers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new models but not selling enough machines to recover the costs.

And alarms are beginning to sound about growing competition from China, where domestic turbine makers that have spent years catering to the Chinese market are beginning to sell their machines overseas. Some Western manufacturers of turbines fear a repeat of the bitter experience with solar panels, a technology first developed in the West but now largely dominated by China and other Asian manufacturers.

“They are in trouble,” Endri Lico, a senior analyst for wind at the consulting firm Wood Mackenzie, said of Western turbine manufacturers. “We are talking about a massive loss for the industry.”

The poor financial performance raises questions about the future of the wind industry in the West and whether the very ambitious plans by governments and energy firms to develop expansive wind farms in Europe and the United States can be achieved.

Jochen Eickholt, the chief executive of Siemens Gamesa, said in an interview that the industry needed to make money to develop, build and install turbines, including off the East Coast of the United States, that would help countries achieve climate goals for reducing carbon emissions.

“Our wind turbine makers need to be reasonably profitable,” he said. “But right now we are not.”

Stung by the recent losses, Siemens Energy, the majority shareholder of Siemens Gamesa, is offering to buy the roughly one-third of the turbine maker that it does not already own as part of an effort to cut costs and tighten controls.

European officials have also criticized parts of the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act that encourage domestic investment, concerned that the law’s substantial incentives for clean energy will draw manufacturers away from the continent. However, European renewable energy executives whose companies plan to expand into the United States saw much to like in the Biden program.

The chief executive of Vestas, the manufacturer of these turbines near Copenhagen, said competitors were selling at a loss to gain orders.
Laerke Posselt for The New York Times

Mr. Eickholt said on a recent call with reporters that Europe would be wise to enact similar measures. “I think it is absolutely vital also in Europe that we keep the related know-how and also the manufacturing and labor base,” he said.

While Chinese makers have made only modest inroads outside their home country, analysts say they have used the large volumes of sales in China to hone their manufacturing skills and train large work forces that can deliver turbines at prices well below those asked by their Western rivals.

“Europe is now facing the very real possibility that the E.U. energy transition will be created by China,” Siemens Gamesa warned in a recent paper asking for support from European governments.

Chinese companies already produce as much as 70 percent of the components that make up turbines used in the West, according to Mr. Lico. “China is the epicenter of the global wind supply chain,” he said, referring to makers of components.

Mr. Andersen of Vestas attributes a large portion of the industry’s woes to competitors selling machines at low prices to win orders. “I think the industry here has to wake up to our own responsibility,” he said, adding that some equipment makers “were selling turbines at loss-making prices.”

The difficulties come as European governments are calling for more wind farms. The European Union recently increased already ambitious targets for wind generation by the end of this decade to almost triple the amount available at the end of last year.

While companies have built very large wind farms off European shores, and governments have awarded leases for large amounts of undersea acreage, notably Scotland this year, executives say political leaders don’t do enough to speed up approvals. These projects can require a decade or so to start generating clean power. Besides being a drag on the industry’s profitability, the delays postpone environmental benefits and do little for countries looking for alternative sources of energy to Russian gas.

Parts of General Electric turbines at a wind farm off Saint-Nazaire in France. G.E. said its renewable energy unit was likely to lose $2 billion this year.
Sebastien Salom-Gomis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Executives also say windfall taxes on the profits of electricity generators, including operators of wind farms, recently announced in Britain and proposed by the European Union are creating further uncertainty for their customers.

“Excuse the language,” Mr. Andersen said. “It is maybe a little of nonsense to sit and adjust targets for 2030 and 2040, because that doesn’t address the current energy crisis in Europe.”

Approaching that target would require greatly accelerating current installation rates, analysts say. For an industry that may be in retreat, picking up the pace could be difficult.

Mr. Lico said Europe found itself with a dilemma: whether to support domestic turbine production, possibly prolonging reliance on fossil fuels, or turn to alternative sources for equipment instead. It is “a matter of priorities,” he said.