Anna Blackaby: Is wind blowing the right way for West Midlands businesses?
Could this be the move that atones for the Government’s apparent dithering on supporting the wind energy sector?
Just a few weeks after the storm surrounding Vestas’ closure of the last major wind-turbine factory in the United Kingdom, Energy and Climate Secretary Ed Miliband announced that Britain will make the world’s biggest wind turbine blades, for offshore turbines which are bigger than Blackpool Tower.
The Government has unveiled a multimillion-pound investment in the industry which will see Aim-listed Clipper Windpower handed £4.4 million to develop its first prototype 70-metre blade for a project to build the largest wind turbines in the world.
In addition, Siemens Wind Power UK will receive £1.1 m to develop the next generation of power converters. But although the majority of the new green-collar jobs may be in the North-East, it could be good news for the Midlands.
It is significant for the region that the third firm to receive cash is Artemis Intelligent Power. Artemis is a firm spun out of fluid power research at the University of Edinburgh, whose work centres around its digital displacement hydraulic power technology, which has been shown to dramatically increase the miles per gallon of vehicles.
The firm has been handed £1 m by the Government to enable the transfer of its technology from automotive applications to the wind energy sector.
Artemis is not the only company to make the jump from automotive to the wind supply sector - that bridge has already been crossed by a few small manufacturing firms in the West Midlands.
Devoid of coastline and with a distinct lack of valleys, the region is not one of the windiest corners of the UK but what we have in abundance is small manufacturing firms who have thrived on supplying parts to the automotive sector, and who, faced with decline in that sector, are looking at ways to diversify.
Some have looked at the wind sector, helped by a scheme run a couple of years ago by Advantage West Midlands. But many of those firms have been disappointed by the slow pace of growth in the UK onshore wind sector, pointing to the numerous projects stymied by local councils’ myopic planning processes.
As Mr Miliband pointed out yesterday, you can only be a centre for onshore wind manufacturing if you are installing enough onshore wind.
We need a two-pronged approach to stimulating the wind-energy sector - pouring cash into making sure that international firms like Clipper and Siemens create jobs here is one side of that. But it is equally important to sort out the onshore wind-planning system, so that we can reap the environmental, as well as the economic, benefits of the technology we’re trying to build.