If there has been a core motivation for the wind turbine industry it has been the desire to design bigger and more powerful, more cost-efficient wind turbines.
For some years this title - for that read most powerful - was held by Enercon’s 7.5MW E126. Since 2015, the leader, by some distance, is MHI-Vestas' V164 9MW.
The V164 is capable of generating 1MW more than its nearest competitor. To get an idea of its size, the nacelle is 8-metres wide and 20-metres long.
The combined mass of the nacelle and the hub is 390-tonnes together with the blades, which are 34 tons each takes her total head mass to around 500-tonnes.
You could drive a double-decker bus into one of its 80-metre long blades. Alternatively, presuming you had enough to hand, you could line nine routemaster buses alongside.
Yet there is more to the V164’s story than MWs and metres. Its development in some ways brought about big changes, not only for the world’s number one wind turbine manufacturer Vestas but, arguably, the wind turbine manufacturing industry itself.
Any examination of the V164s development should start with the launch of the UK’s Round 3 offshore development programme. Originally envisaged as 32GW across nine zones covering the North and Irish Seas, and the English Channel, Round 3’s zones ranged from 9 GW to 600 MW.
Some zones were located hundreds of miles from shore. So it was obvious that larger wind turbines than the 3-4MW machines available would be needed to have a chance of making the sites economical. The results of the government tender were announced in January 2010.
The V164 was originally unveiled by Vestas in early-2011 at the South Bank Centre, London close by the London Eye. And the ferris wheel was referenced in the presentation as it came close to the turbine’s wind swept area.
It was a comeback time for Vestas in terms of offshore wind. Once the market leader, Vestas effectively withdrew in the mid-2000s when gearbox issues its hit its V90 range. Siemens was happy to fill its shoes, first with the 2.3MW and then its 3.6MW turbine. By 2011 the Siemens 3.6MW was (it still is) the world’s most-installed offshore wind turbine.
By 2011, the only 5MW+ offshore turbine were made by Senvion (then Repower), Areva, and Bard. Senvion also had a head start with the 6M 6MW turbine, which was introduced earlier that year. The industry knew that other manufacturers were also working on new offshore designs to go to 6MW and beyond.
If there was a hill to climb to rejuvenate Vestas’ offshore prospects, Vestas’ CEO Ditlev Engel kept it hidden. He heralded the V164 as “[representing] the biggest research and development investment Vestas had ever made”. But with much of the cost still to come, it was to prove a prophetic statement.
The biggest news was the V164’s 7MW capacity. Leaks and rumour in the run-up to the launch, orchestrated by Vestas one assumes, said the turbine would be 6MW. Also, the 164-metre rotor was revealed with its swept area of 21,000 m2. Vestas also claimed that 80 per cent of the turbine would be from recycled material - a fact that is well overdue a follow-up.
Other relevant points at the time include a minimum hub height of 105-metres and a tip height of 187-metres. It was designed for depths under 45-metres.
The most interesting reveal was that the V164 would use a conventional gearbox. This was something that still goes against prevailing wisdom for offshore turbines. The majority of offshore turbines use direct drive as there are fewer moving parts and less maintenance is required.
Explaining the decision, Vestas chief technical officer Finn Madsen maintained independent research had proved that gears were still reliable. Many failures were down to faulty electrical systems, he said while pointing out the difficulties in sourcing the rare-earth metals required for direct drive systems.
A rear-mounted generator was also chosen for servicing reasons as it allowed for the easy replacement of components. The V164 would also come with its own crane enabling it to replace or install them without a requiring jack-up vessel.
Despite the research outlay, the machine only existed on paper. Notably, the only physical turbines Vestas could point to at the presentation were the Lego models that were given away to journalists. The first V164 was set to be developed and built between 2012 and 2014. Serial production would be starting in Q1 2015.
Vestas’ use of a drawing was underlined weeks later when Siemens launched the SWT-6.0 6MW turbine. But there was one crucial difference. Siemens had gone further than Vestas and constructed, switched on, and generated power from, a prototype. In the words of a senior Siemens executive at the time: “We like to see if something works before we announce it.”
There was still a lot of work to be done on the V164. But none of Vestas’ timings would be hit and none of the three executives present in London that day would be with the company when the V164 was completed. Unbeknownst to many people present, Vestas was suffering from more fundamental issues than the challenge of developing the biggest ever wind turbine.
There were also political problems. During the V164 press conference, Engel referenced UK government policy a number of times. A new UK government led by the Conservative Party had come into power the previous year and it had pledged to overhaul renewable energy subsidies. The wind industry was not happy about the uncertainty it was casting over offshore investment.
No one likes to talk about it but there is an ‘under the table’ link with investment and the building of manufacturing plants. Of course we want to build the V164 in the UK, said Engel when asked where it would be built. But, he said, the climate had to be right and Vestas had to be certain the orders would be there.
A few months after the presentation, Vestas announced plans build a plant near Sheerness, on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. In a similar way to how Siemens’ Hull plant now works, it would manufacture V164 blades and assemble nacelles. A rendering was released to show what it would look like while preliminary planning enquires were lodged with the authorities.
Less than a year later in June 2012, the V164 schedule was put back and the factory was axed by Vestas. Manufacturing overcapacity was already proving a troubling issue for Vestas - especially in the US. Moreover, the company was about to hit by possibly the rockiest period in its history.
In 2012, Vestas announced the V164 was being upgraded to 8MW. Yet the news was largely lost as Vestas found itself enveloped in a crisis of its own making.
As the year progressed Vestas was beset by bad news. There were successive poor results, technical issues on other machines, and profit warnings through the year and Engel announced massive job cuts of around 2,300. There were some high-profile casualties. Among those to go were a number of board members including Anders Soe-Jensen and Finn Madsen, the head of offshore and chief technical officer respectively.
There were also issues surrounding high research and development costs - the V164 no doubt among them - and the failure to bring online a generator factory for the latest V112 and Gridstreamer turbines.
It is not uncommon for a run of poor results to prompt a restructure but it is unusual for there to be a restructure of a restructure. Within three weeks of the initial sackings, two of the replacements suffered the same fate. One of these was Jensen’s offshore replacement.
More significantly, the chairman Bent Carlsen announced he would not be standing for re-election at the Vestas AGM. He was quickly replaced by former Sony Ericsson CEO Bert Nordberg whose arrival would herald a major change for Vestas and the fledgling V164 project.
Six months later, it was revealed Vestas was in talks with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) about a possible “strategic cooperation between the two [companies]”.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries
At the time, there was no indication that cooperation would involve the V164. Mitsubishi had in January only just launched its 7MW Sea Angel turbine. It was developed for the same markets as the V164, ie Round 3, although it featured one notable difference. The Sea Angel used a hydraulic drive system developed in Scotland by its newly-acquired subsidiary Artemis Wind Power.
By 2012, MHI was coming to the end of a bruising battle with GE over the former’s 2.4MW turbine. GE alleged the machine infringed its patented LVRT technology. After a number of years fighting through the courts, the case was settled. At best it was a pyrrhic victory. MHI had scrapped plans for a factory in Arkansas and, arguably, it the end of the MHI 2.4MW turbine.
In the event, it would be another year before the nature of the partnership with Vestas was revealed and signed off. In September 2013, MHI agreed to invest €300 million in a joint venture between the two companies. This included €100 million up front and the remainder dependent upon the V164 hitting certain predefined milestones. In return, Vestas
This included €100 million up front and the remainder dependent upon the V164 hitting certain predefined milestones. In return, Vestas agreed to hand over the V164, its V112-3.3MW offshore orderbook, existing offshore service contracts, and transfer 300 employees to the joint venture. It would be branded as MHI-Vestas.
The ownership of the JV would be 50:50, with option for MHI to acquire a controlling 1% from Vestas at a later date (MHI decided against taking this up in 2016). Interestingly, the Sea Angel was excluded from the deal although there was a possibility the V164 could take its hydraulic drivetrain design at a later date.
In August, the month before the MHI-deal was signed, Vestas CEO Ditlev Engel was sacked by the company. He was replaced by Anders Runevad, who joined from Swedish Telecoms company Ericsson.
While the MHI negotiations were ongoing, Vestas had made a number of breakthroughs in terms of component design and production of the V164. The blade, nacelle and hub had all been developed and testing was in progress by the time the joint venture announcement was made in September.
The nacelle and hub were tested at Vestas’ facility at Odense Fjord in Jutland while the blade was built and tested at the company’s blade production plant on the Isle of Wight, England.
During this time, development work had been going on with the MHI Sea Angel and the V164. Indeed the advanced nature of the Sea Angel work led some industry observers to question whether MHI intended to go ahead with the deal. Shortly, before the Vestas deal was formally announced, MHI temporarily held the world record for a wind turbine blade when an 81-metre version was sent to Scotland, where the turbine was to be installed. The Sea Angel would eventually be commissioned in Hunterston, Scotland.
By December, the V164’s nacelle and the blades were completed and transported to the Østerild wind turbine test site in northern Denmark. By January 2014, the first V164 turbine was installed and commissioned. Shortly after, MHI-Vestas received the first substantial order, from Dong Energy, for the 258MW Burbo Bank Extension project off the English west coast.
Testing continued throughout the year. Then in October, Vestas announced the V164 had broken the production records for a wind turbine by generating 192 MWh over 24 hours. Winds were approximately 11-metres per second in the period.
With the orders coming in, questions were arising as to what MHI-Vestas's plans were for the manufacture of the V164. Sheerness was originally conditional on the UK government providing a good economic climate (ie. subsidies) for wind. Now MHI-Vestas was beginning to bring in UK orders.
In November 2014, MHI-Vestas CEO Jens Tommerup announced plans to lease Vestas's production facilities on the Isle of Wight to manufacture V164 blades. It was described as being as part of a wider UK production strategy and investment figure of €255 million was quoted alongside the promise of 800 new jobs.
At the same time, the original plans for Round 3 had been scaled back. A number of projects including the 1.5GW Atlantic Array and the 4.2GW Celtic Array had been scrapped.
By this stage, Siemens had uprated its 6MW turbine to 7MW and was also further down the line with its manufacturing plant at Hull. It was clear from the negotiations that jobs were an important part of the process. In the Siemens case, UK government papers obtained under a Freedom of Information request outlined talks between Siemens and the government. The government wanted jobs, Siemens wanted to be sure there was support for projects.
The V164 was certified by GL in 2015 and MHI-Vestas began manufacturing the 32 turbines to be installed at the Burbo Bank Extension.
In 2016, the V164 was given another upgrade. A power mode allowing its output to be boosted to 8.4MW was brought in. Then at the beginning of 2017, the company said the V164 has been pushed to 9MW. The company said a prototype at the Osterild national test centre in Denmark broke the 24-hour wind power generation record in the process.
The upgrades to the V164 take the turbine close to the 10MW barrier. Only a few years ago, this was deemed an extremely difficult challenge with the added weights and efficiencies that would need to be achieved. The fact MHI-Vestas was able to do this without changing the external structure shows how far the industry has come in terms of maximising efficiencies.
Crucially, MHI-Vestas is not alone in upgrading its turbines. Siemens has done the same with its own turbine, originally taking the machine from 6MW to 7MW. It is currently testing an 8MW version of the turbine. While Adwen is also set to commission its own 8MW prototype.
Yet, the V164 is, still, the most powerful wind turbine that has ever been built. But, where does this leave Vestas and MHI-Vestas, the company that was created to build it?
In an interview in 2016, MHI-Vestas CEO Jens Tommerup said the joint venture had achieved its fundamental aims. And there are a number of projects that will use the V164, these include Burbo Bank (280MW) and Horns Rev 3 (406.7MW). Orders are in the book.
Yet, in 2013, when he also said he wanted MHI-Vestas to be the biggest offshore manufacturer in the world, i.e. toppling Siemens. He also added at the time: "There's definitely a desire to utilise offshore in Asia. Offshore in the US is also interesting," he said. "We basically have one of the strongest players in power in Asia as a partner. In the short term, most of the business will be in Europe. Medium to long-term there is Asia. I could see Japan moving."
In the long-term the market itself will dictate how achievable this is for MHI-Vestas. Right now that market is northern Europe. The early indicators are that Siemens will retain first place in 2020. MHI-Vestas may be a little way off achieving the dominance Vestas held in the mid-2000s, yet it is the main competitors and a solid second.
As far as Vestas goes, the company has emerged from its 2012-period leaner and fitter with a new management in place. Depending on what league table you look at, Vestas is still considered the number one onshore wind turbine company.
But what the V164 and the creation of MHI-Vestas proved was that even the world’s biggest pure player manufacturer lacked the financial muscle to bring a next-generation 6MW+ offshore turbine to market.
The MHI deal set the trend. Gamesa went the same route, creating a joint-venture with Areva in Adwen. Going further back, Nordex failed to bring other co-developers in for its N150 6MW and was forced to scrap the project. It now seems that you have to be a major conglomerate to design and manufacture 6MW+ wind turbines.
Gamesa is now set to merge with Siemens while Nordex has joined up with Acciona. Senvion is the only western-based pure-player with both its own offshore and onshore business. But it is using a turbine that was effectively designed in the mid-2000s. Offshore wind is a game for the big players, not just big wind turbine manufacturers.
The early-2010s saw a huge investment in new offshore wind turbine platforms. Not just from Siemens and MHI-Vestas, but also from Alstom, Adwen, Aerodyn, Hyundai, GE, and numerous Chinese manufacturers. Sadly, bearing in mind the huge development costs, it may be some time before we see anything like this again.
At the same, it is worth remembering that between 2008-2013 there was really only one turbine in town. The Siemens 3.6MW. Perhaps the important thing is that, despite the spate of consolidation that seems to have enveloped the industry, in the V164 there is now a serious offshore alternative to a Siemens turbine. And it is also the biggest.