SureBlades takes over where Vestas left off

Nearly a year since Danish wind turbine manufacturer Vestas closed its blade facility on the Isle of Wight, former workers have formed a company that manufactures blades for micro-turbines.

When Vestas closed its Isle of Wight and Southampton plants in August 2009, the Danish wind turbine company left behind more than hundreds of angry and disappointed workers. It was also a huge blow to Britain’s aspiration to manufacture its own wind turbines, or at least the blades, even under foreign ownership.

One year on, while Britain waits for Mitsubishi, Clipper Windpower, GE Wind and Siemens to pick up where Vestas left off in terms of component production for large turbines, on the Isle of Wight a new wind has fanned the Vestas ashes. Former Vestas employee Sean McDonagh has teamed up with Keith Hounsell, a Dorset businessman with experience installing micro-turbines in the south of England. They plan to rent a factory in Newport, near the former Vestas site, under the name Sureblades Ltd.

“Keith heard me on the radio during our occupation of the Vestas factory,” McDonagh said. “He immediately saw the potential of a skilled workforce.”

Both McDonagh and Housell view the smaller end of the wind market as neglected. “We knew it was wrong when we were made redundant,” McDonagh said. “We had support from Caroline Lucas, now an MP, and we plan to address renewable energy seriously.”

Subject to testing

Sureblades, a worker-led company that aims at the micro-turbine market, has taken a route that many VCs would approve: it has sought orders before going into production. Subject to testing on its own wind turbines, C&F Green Energy of Ireland has ordered 1,000 blades from Sureblades.

These blades, probably to be made of thermo plastic, were developed with the help of Southampton University, and have the environmental advantage of being recyclable: after use they can be melted down and turned into new blades.

Dr Feargal Brennan, professor of offshore engineering at Cranfield University, who was involved in the development of NOVA and Aerogenerator, a new British design that will compete for the title of the world’s largest offshore wind turbine, said: “The Sureblades initiative is commendable at a time when the great majority of wind power technology deployed in the UK is currently imported. Whereas microgeneration can only have a limited impact, it is part of the mix and is therefore important. We need to see many many more examples of UK SMEs working with technology developers to expand the supply base and develop the competitive market that is currently non existent.”

However, Indre Vaizgelaite, manager of small wind systems at RenewableUK, formerly the British Wind Energy Association, disagrees on the importance of small wind – up to 20 KW. She sees the sector as relatively well developed – and having great potential.

“The UK is a world leader in the manufacture of small wind turbines and the market continues to grow rapidly, evidenced by the fact that the UK already has over 14,000 installed small wind systems, providing clean
energy for local communities across the country,” she said. “Sureblades' new turbine blades are an exciting development that serves to highlight the dynamism  and innovation of the UK small wind turbine manufacturing sector."

Skill pool

If the test at C&F goes well, in September 2010 McDonagh and Hounsell plan to start manufacturing blades measuring 4.7 meters, suitable for wind turbines up to 15 KW, using a mould process. While their current team numbers only four people, they hope to employ as many as 40 new staff over the next two years, including local ex-Vestas workers. “We like the skill pool on the island,” McDonagh said.

Going forward, McDonagh is keeping an eye on Recyc-All, a new social enterprise on the Isle of Wight initiated by Darren Hopkins, who plans to recycle waste on the island and put some of the profits into a wind farm. Recyc-All has just received its first funding.

“My community project will benefit everyone,” Hopkins said. “We aim for zero landfill using gasification, pyrolysis and anaerobic digestion. We plan to capture the CO2, clean it up and use an algae bio photo reactor. We should be able to use 40-60% of the CO2 to generate an organic oil for biofuel and animal feed.”

Meanwhile, Vestas has not abandoned the Isle of Wight altogether. Last year, despite the Danish company’s decision to close its factory, its UK offshoot, Vestas Technology, received more than £6 mil in public money for an R&D centre there. This included about £3 million from DECC’s Environmental Transformation Fund scheme, and £ 3.5 million from SEEDA – the South East England Development Authority.

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