Australia has plenty of wind around its fringes but the monster turbines that have been plugging into the grid recently have had to be shipped here. Our high labour costs probably dictate that’s the way things will stay for a while.

Danish firm Vestas has set the ball rolling in the Aussie-assembled wind turbine stakes with its announcement of a partnership with Geelong-based Marand Precision Engineering to turn out hubs and drive trains. 

Vestas country head Australia and New Zealand Peter Cowling (standing far left in main picture) says the announcement is part of the Danish company’s commitment to help its clients win round one of the Victorian Renewable Energy Target auction, where the state government had a clear ambition to maximise local content and increase local investment and skills transfer.

Vestas turbines take in the sunset at the Macarthur Wind Farm.

“This is about building skills and capability,” says Cowling, before reminding EcoGeneration the company once operated a plant in Wynyard, Tasmania, and a blade factory in Portland, Victoria, both of which closed around 2007.

“The problem with both those permanent facilities with permanent large workforces is that the industry just wasn’t permanent at the time,” he says. “It dropped off the cliff as the Renewable Energy Target came and went.”

As part of Vestas’s side of the deal with Marand it has agreed to send workers to its Danish headquarters for training on its production lines. Once the Australian workers are back in the old Ford Factory in Geelong, they’ll be set to work on 4.2MW units destined for the Dundonnell Wind Farm and Berrybank Wind Farm projects in Victoria. The propellers powering Dundonnell will measure 150 metres across and 136-metre-diameter giants will revolve over the landscape at Berrybank.

So far there is no manufacturing commitment beyond those two projects. “We need the demand in Australia to justify the manufacturing in Australia,” Cowling says. “The hope is there’ll be future rounds of the [Victorian] auction or other actions like that around the country which will enable us to continue and ideally expand the operation.”

As far as he knows, no other turbine maker has set up manufacturing facilities in Australia.

Eighty turbines are planned for Dundonnell and 43 machines for Berrybank. Vestas has committed to local assembly of 100 hubs and 50 drivetrains – which includes bedplate, gearbox, driveshaft and generator. “It takes a fair bit of putting together.”

Geelong’s history as Australia’s car-making hub means it is already well-connected to support industries trying to reinvent themselves. “We hope this is a great opportunity for them to understand what this industry looks like, and for it to be a door-opener to the global wind industry supply chain.”

It may be too soon to presume the maker will make blades here again, however. Labour makes up about half the cost of a blade, he says, and it’s hard to compete against Asia on those terms. But you can never say never.

“If a government wants to put a scheme in place that mandates requirements for that sort of investment and local content and gives enough of a forward market to justify the trouble and investment, then fantastic, we’d love to do it.”