Morten Albæk of Vestas: 'We're in the business of saving the world'

Morten Albæk has nothing but nice things to say about his colleagues and forebears in the wind business, except for this: they have made a shockingly bad job of selling wind energy to the average consumer.

Part corporate philosopher, part iconoclast and part modern-day Renaissance man — oh, and he also happens to be a senior vice-president at Vestas — Albæk is convinced that if wind power is to one day dominate the world’s energy mix, it will not get there through traditional business and political channels.

Rather, it needs to tap into the hearts and minds of consumers around the world. It may sound soppy, but, in the eyes of Albæk, it is just intelligent business.

“Considering how many smart and skilful people actually work in the wind business, I think the conservatism in the way we promote wind is mind-blowing,” he tells Recharge.

Wind companies — including Vestas, until recently — are “introverted, technology-driven” beasts with little interest in or understanding of how they are perceived beyond their core customer base.

“What wind companies have that other business-to-business organisations don’t is they’re selling a piece of technology that’s going to save the world,” says Albæk, looking genuinely appalled at their lack of imagination.

The crowbar Albæk intends to use to pry the industry out of its shell is WindMade, a new eco-label that will soon adorn a spectrum of consumer products the way the Fairtrade logo is now found on coffee, wine and honey.

Last week, WindMade issued the technical standards for companies hoping to use the logo in their marketing and promotional materials. Next year, it will spell out the standards for individual products.

Companies can use the icon only if at least 25% of the electricity they consume comes from wind. They have three choices for meeting that requirement: they can own their own wind turbines; sign a long-term power-purchase agreement with someone who does; or buy green certificates on the open market.

The exact percentage of a company’s wind usage will be stated on their label, and, in a generous gesture, the use of other renewable energies can also be communicated.

Although spearheaded by Vestas, and backed by groups such as the Global Wind Energy Council and Lego, WindMade has been formally cut loose, and exists today as a non-profit organisation based in Brussels.

Albæk has the easy smile and trigger-ready answers of a world-class salesman, but the future of WindMade ultimately rides on one assumption: that it will be easier to convince the general public of the benefits of wind energy than politicians or traditional energy companies.

Research conducted for Vestas found that half of global consumers said they would pay more for a WindMade product — a can of soda, say — than one made using “brown energy”.

“Now, I don’t think that in the moment of truth, standing there in the shopping mall with no-one watching, 50% would actually be willing to pay a premium,” Albæk concedes.

“But what that means is that if 50% say that now, then when the day comes that those two products do have an equal price, there is no doubt whatsoever which one they will choose.”

Next month, WindMade will reveal the first companies to sign up for the scheme at a high-profile gala in New York City. The selection of the Big Apple was not random, and suggests that some of the early corporate adopters will be American.

The US represents a critical beachhead for WindMade, Albæk acknowledges.

“First, just in terms of the amount of people, and second, because many of the world’s strongest brands are American.

“Bringing some of the American power brands into the WindMade journey is extremely important. These brands have a global reach, and they can help deploy the WindMade label to the four corners of the world.”

But equally important to the scheme are the emerging markets of China and India, he says, where, contrary to conventional wisdom, consumers are extraordinarily interested in supporting environmentally friendly companies and products.

“And from a business-case perspective, they’re also the two countries set for the biggest increase in middle-class consumers,” he adds.

Albæk’s path to WindMade — and Vestas — was far from conventional, but many figures within the wind business believe he is the best possible candidate for forging an emotional connection between global consumers and wind energy.

After studying history and philosophy, and with the original intention of becoming a high-school teacher, Albæk quickly distanced himself from his “normal middle-class Scandinavian” background by becoming the youngest-ever senior executive within Danske Bank, in charge of the “idea generation” unit.

Throughout his 20s, he distinguished himself among the Danish elite as much for his unconventional thinking, as evidenced by his countless newspaper columns and socio-political tracts, as for his business chops.

The decision to leave his high-flying job and defect to Vestas came in his early 30s, after the death of his father. “It was clear I was not going to use all my life being part of the financial sector,” he says.

Albæk smiles indulgently when asked about the potential economic benefits of WindMade for Vestas, making it clear this is not the first time he has faced this particular question.

“For me, it’s not that important that consumers have any sort of attachment to Vestas,” he says.

“Of course, it would be nice if millions and millions of citizens were attached to the Vestas brand, and really thought it was something unique and inspiring. But, at the end of the day, what is truly important is that consumers are emotionally attached to wind.”