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Former Vestas employee investigates USA wind power
By Matt Treacy
BBC Radio Solent reporter

Wind turbines
Over 270 turbines make up the Cedar Creek Wind Farm

"I can't think of a better way to describe it than being out in the middle of God's country," said Troy Ryan.

We were in his large pick-up, driving along a long and dusty road through Cedar Creek Wind Farm.

It is Troy's job to manage this 33,000 acre site in the wide open plains of North Colorado, USA.

A herd of antelope watch us closely as they wander casually in between the 80-metre high towers that supply electricity to 90,000 homes.

However, while it took over 400 people to construct this impressive site, Troy Ryan heads up a team of just 20.

Green economy

Troy Ryan
Troy Ryan manages Cedar Creek Wind Farm

Also with me, cricking her neck to look up at the top of the impressive giant white needles piercing the clear blue Colorado sky, was Penny Draper.

This time last year Penny, 34, proudly counted herself as one of those who made a living from the green economy, working at the Vestas wind turbine factory - 4,640 miles away on the Isle of Wight.

When the company announced it was to close its plant in Newport last summer, it blamed a lack of demand in the UK.

Most of the blades made on the island in the last few years had been shipped across the Atlantic to an American market where supply could not keep up with demand.

But the closure was not just a blow to Penny's career, it removed the only English maker of wind turbines and was an embarrassment for a government who had promised a green jobs revolution.

The protests at Vestas lasted for 18 days
The protests at Vestas lasted for 18 days last summer

Along with the rest of the world, I had watched as around 25 Vestas employees occupied the factory for 18 days to protest about losing their jobs - they ultimately failed but they did put the issue of renewable energy on the national agenda.

If the UK government wants wind to deliver 30% of the UK's electricity supply by 2020, and with it tens of thousands of jobs, that will need to include manufacturing and construction of turbines to make any real impact.

That is why we had come to Colorado, USA - the state where wind power has grown by nearly 4,000% over the last ten years - to see what the UK can learn.

New investment

It is also the place that Vestas, the world's biggest wind turbine manufacturer, chose to invest $1 billion in four brand new factories.

Their chief executive Ditlev Engel famously told Forbes magazine that, "Not harvesting America's wind would be like going to Saudi Arabia and not drilling for oil."

According to RenewableUK - the trade body for British Wind industry - only 1% of our electricity comes from wind, despite us having some of the best wind resource in Europe.

But you wouldn't be able to tell that looking at the figures - by the end of 2009 the UK had installed just over 4,000 wind turbines in total across the country. Compare that to 19,000 in Spain or 25,000 in Germany. There clearly is not as much 'drilling' going on in the UK as elsewhere in Europe.

Wind turbine

Tom Shmidt has worked in the wind industry for five years and is now part of a new company hoping to manage the new wind farms being built across America. He says that neighbouring states have exactly the same wind, but that they are attracted to certain spots.

"If you drive along that border," he says, "You'll find that the turbines are located on the Colorado side. And there's a reason for that."

Like everybody we speak to he says that political leaders, including the state governor, Bill Ritter, have "made wind pay" in the state, through a combination of tax credits for producers, incentives for people to have turbines on their land, and have bent over backwards to help producers that bring lucrative manufacturing to the state.

New factory

One of the four new factories for Vestas has been built in the small town of Windsor.

Ex-Vestas worker Penny Draper visits Colorado

Windsor's Mayor John Vazquez explained what brought the multi-national to this particular town.

He said: "We had leadership at the State level.

"I certainly hope that there isn't a perception that just as the Isle of Wight is losing jobs, Windsor's getting… those jobs lost over there."

He told us that thanks to the 'credit crunch' Vestas have not had a blade order for nearly six months.

However, Mayor Vazquez remains hopeful for the long term future. "You don't build a $30 million plant for just a five year business plan," he told us.

As Penny and I drove to the sprawling new Windsor plant, neither of us expected the journey to the quite as emotional as it was.

With a heavy sigh Penny told me that she felt, "…deeply sad for something that we've had on the Isle of Wight and that's been greatly lost."

At 19,000 square-metres the Windsor site is certainly bigger, but could an investment like this ever be brought to the UK?

Penny certainly felt that there were things that Britons could learn from the attitude of the Americans to wind power.

She told me: "… if we could just bottle a little bit of the passion that they have in Colorado and bring it back to the Isle of Wight… just to say look - this is big business out here."

Listen to BBC Radio Solent's Redundant South - Where's my job gone? on BBC iPlayer.




SEE ALSO
Fighting the wind farm 'Nimbys'
29 Mar 10 |  Hampshire
Ex-Vestas workers 'on lower pay'
29 Mar 10 |  Hampshire
Vestas workers on life after redundancy
12 Feb 10 |  Hampshire
Sit-in wind blade factory closes
12 Aug 09 |  Hampshire

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