Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Clipper cuts workforce at its US wind turbine production plant

Clipper Windpower has dismissed 90 workers with most of them at its only wind turbine manufacturing plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, citing order deferrals from customers experiencing problems arranging project financing amid a sluggish US economy.

It was not immediately clear how many employees will remain at the plant, which began production of Clipper’s flagship 2.5MW Liberty turbine in 2005. The 18,580 sq meter facility has capacity of 350 units a year.

Since industrial conglomerate United Technologies Corporation completed its acquisition of Clipper in December, the company has not announced major orders. Officials at Pratt & Whitney Power Systems, the UTC subsidiary that now oversees Clipper, were not immediately available for comment on current plant operations.

Pratt has been conducting a full review of Clipper’s operations and cost structure, and says it remains committed to the vendor’s onshore wind turbine business. Clipper has put on hold plans to develop its massive 10MW Britannia offshore wind turbine in the UK.

Clipper’s position has diminished in the past several years in the US, its main market, as larger competitors such as General Electric, Vestas and Siemens establish dominance. A second-tier of turbine vendors led by Gamesa, Suzlon and Mitsubishi have also been squeezed, but retain healthy global operations and can afford to wait for the American economy and energy demand to rebound.

Clipper also faces heightened competition from Chinese turbine manufacturers who are starting to gain a foothold in the US. Some of them are willing to finance projects and turbine sales at low cost themselves, something that was difficult, if not impossible, for cash-strapped Clipper before it was acquired by UTC. Pratt has not apparently decided on a sales strategy for Clipper.

The vendor and its bigger rivals have been hurt as well by inconsistent US renewable energy and transmission modernization policies, complicating and slowing efforts by developers to undertake major wind projects. Low natural gas prices have also undercut competitiveness of wind in some regions.

Still on the drawing board is the Titan wind farm in South Dakota involving as many as 2,020 turbines, a Clipper joint venture with BP, its main customer. Oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens and Shell have also shelved large-scale wind farms unrelated to Clipper in Texas.

Clipper’s limited product range may also have hurt its market position. While the average size of installed turbine has been trending up in the US – it reached 1.77MW in 2010 according to the American Wind Energy Association – it remains far below the Clipper offering.

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