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Wind-turbine makers weathered pandemic year largely unscathed, orders show

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A turbine blade on its way to a wind farm in Brazil. Manufacturers saw solid orders despite the pandemic.
Source: Enel SpA

The big Western wind-turbine manufacturers saw broadly stable order books in 2020, indicating a robust year for the industry despite monthslong lockdowns that disrupted installation work and led renewable energy developers to push back projects.

An analysis of new orders for onshore and offshore turbines at Denmark's Vestas Wind Systems A/S, Spain's Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy SA, U.S.-based General Electric Co. and Germany's Nordex SE shows new business was down less than 3% year over year, with the four companies' accounts showing total orders of 48.5 GW in 2020, down from 49.8 GW the previous year.

Outside of China, whose turbine-makers mostly serve their vast domestic market, the group of four are the largest suppliers to the growing global wind industry.

Within the group, Siemens Gamesa saw the steepest drop: The company's orders slipped by 17% year over year, with a similar change for both its onshore and offshore models.

Overall orders at GE and Nordex dropped slightly, while Vestas actually saw a 6% increase over 2019 as a result of higher orders in its recently consolidated offshore business.

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A spokesperson for Siemens Gamesa pointed to the volatility of the offshore wind business as part of the reason for the drop in 2020, but said it also reflects the company's new commercial strategy of prioritizing returns over volume under its new CEO, Andreas Nauen.

Siemens Gamesa also decided to withdraw from some onshore wind markets last year after the early effects of the pandemic caused the company to swing to a quarterly net loss.

"[We are] focusing on projects that fit into our profitability criteria," the spokesperson said in an email, noting this will take up to two years to translate into higher revenues.

Prices for the product it sold during 2020 were roughly stable, indicating the company is looking to optimize its production to eke out better returns. It recently announced the closure of two factories in Spain.

A disruptive year

During 2020, the coronavirus pandemic disrupted supply chains in key markets for blade production and slowed down installation activity, as factories shut down and construction workers stayed home. Siemens Gamesa said in July that about 90 of its projects had been impacted to some degree.

Others struggled, too. Nordex also recorded a net loss during the second quarter and even sought help from the German government, securing a €350 million state-backed loan. The company has not yet reported annual results but said in January that strong demand in the fourth quarter almost entirely made up for lower orders earlier in the year.

Even if the companies did not escape the crisis unscathed financially, they were generally upbeat about managing the logistical challenges. Nauen said that effects during the most recent quarter had been far less severe than earlier in 2020, despite new lockdowns in many countries.

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"We [now] know how to deal with it and also how to move people across the countries. Of course, it's not as easy as it used to be, with quarantine rules. But generally, we have stabilized the operation pretty well," he said during a Jan. 29 earnings call.

Executives at Vestas have struck a similar tone. Although supply chain bottlenecks and other pandemic complications cut into its profit margin, the company said it delivered more than 17 GW during 2020, up 34% compared to 2019.

Offshore race

Vestas has also newly launched 15-MW turbine and is now hoping the model will help it grow its market share in offshore wind. Analysts at Berenberg said the turbine could drive orders "materially higher" over the coming two years.

Analysts at UBS also reckon that Vestas' new turbine and GE's slightly smaller Haliade-X model mean the two companies will continue to chip away at Siemens Gamesa's position as offshore market leader. They pointed to the company's recent order intake, which captured just over half of market volume, as proof that it is losing ground.

"While we do expect [Siemens Gamesa] to remain the market leader in this space (at least over the medium term), we do not expect the company to maintain the high (60-70%) share it has held since 2011/12," the analysts wrote in a note.

GE already signed a 2.4-GW order for 190 of its Haliade-X turbines to supply the Dogger Bank A and B offshore wind farm, the world's largest offshore wind project, which helped drive up orders in the company's wind business despite a slowdown elsewhere.

But while the offshore space is seeing fiercer competition, the market is also growing rapidly. The UBS analysts expect global onshore wind capacity additions outside of China to grow by up to 3% through 2025, whereas the strong project pipeline in offshore wind could drive a compound annual growth rate of 23% over the same period.