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Mitsubishi Heavy readies world's most powerful wind turbine

Japanese tech brought to European joint venture to challenge Siemens

MHI Vestas is No. 2 in the world in offshore wind turbines. (Photo courtesy of MHI Vestas Offshore Wind)

TOKYO -- The long rivalry between Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Germany's Siemens in power generation is once again set to heat up.

The two actually joined forces a few years ago in a failed bid to acquire the energy division of France's Alstom. But now the Japanese heavy machinery maker is ready to go head-to-head with Siemens in the field of offshore wind power.

Siemens dominates this field, but MHI Vestas Offshore Wind, a 50-50 joint venture between Mitsubishi Heavy and Denmark's Vestas Wind Systems, has finally reached the commercialization stage with the world's most powerful offshore wind turbine.

With the capacity to generate as much as 9,500kW of electricity and a design that facilitates installation and repairs, Mitsubishi Heavy believes it is in a position with this product to blow Siemens' house down.

At a factory two hours outside Copenhagen, MHI Vestas is now busy assembling the nacelle that houses the electricity-generating components of the wind turbine. The final step is attachment of the blades, which at 80 meters are each longer than a jumbo jet. The larger the wind turbine, the more wind it can harness and more efficiently it can generate electricity. MHI Vestas is building a model that bests the Siemens model as the most powerful in the world, capable of supplying electricity equivalent to the demand of 8,300 homes.

The company's factory in Denmark used to be a shipyard and looks from the outside like a relic from the past. But inside it is equipped with a full range of production technologies from Mitsubishi Heavy, which has 500 different product groups ranging from airplanes to air conditioners.

"What we have here is a collection of advanced technologies from Yokohama, Nagoya, Takasago and Nagasaki," said MHI Vestas Co-CEO Tetsushi Mizuno.

Since the joint venture was established three years ago it has managed to slash the time required to assemble its wind turbines to a fraction of what it was before. The main assembly building covers 15,000 sq. meters of space, and the processes inside are divided into eight stages, all tightly managed and choreographed so that each of the 30 large components is brought in just in time.

Europe accounts for the majority of the global market for offshore wind turbines, and Siemens has supplied nearly 70% of the turbines there. The share that MHI Vestas can claim of this total is less than 20%. But as Mizuno is quick to emphasize, since his company was established in 2014 it has matched Siemens -- the two companies have evenly split the business. "Going forward, we want to capture 60-70% of the market," he said.

What promises to drive sales for MHI Vestas is the user-friendly design of its turbines. The top of the nacelle has an "open hatch" structure, meaning that parts that need repair can be removed and replaced individually using a crane, and without the need to detach the blades. That translates into major savings in terms of both cost and time.

Installing and repairing offshore wind turbines requires special ships that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a day to charter. For customers, the promise of slashing days of work at sea is a major selling point, as is the fact that the wind turbines can be installed at the rate of two a day.

It is hard to predict what energy technologies will survive the Trump administration in the U.S. and which way the wind will blow for wind power. It will be interesting to see how the joint venture with Vestas helps Mitsubishi Heavy compete against longtime rival Siemens.

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