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America’s wind corridor

From Minnesota to Texas, wind power sweeps new jobs into old-tech towns.

By Staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor / February 5, 2009

New trade: A Clipper crew assembles the hub of a wind turbine in an Iowa factory that formerly built printing presses.

Mark Clayton

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Cedar Rapids and Estherville, Iowa

Hundreds of workers lost their jobs after the Rockwell-Goss printing press factory closed here in Cedar Rapids in 2001. The hulking empty shell sat idle on the outskirts of the city for four years.

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But that was before wind power blew into town, bringing thousands of clean-tech manufacturing jobs to Iowa and the Midwest.

In many cases, the new industry is setting up shop in defunct heavy manufacturing plants, bringing new economic life and vitality to old settings.

Bob Loyd, who once oversaw crews manufacturing the last printing presses to leave the old Rockwell-Goss factory, now manages workers assembling the newest generation of giant wind turbines in the same building.

“We’ve all watched the demise of heavy manufacturing in the Midwest in recent years,” says Mr. Loyd, plant manager at Clipper Turbine Works, a division of Clipper Windpower in Carpinteria, Calif.

“I wouldn’t say it’s all returned. But wind power is definitely helping bring some of that manufacturing muscle back.”

Before the nation’s financial crisis hit, wind manufacturing was on a roll. Riding a wave of wind-farm development, some 55 new or expanded facilities popped up nationwide just last year – from blade manufacturers to bearing makers – in what some describe as a new north-south wind manufacturing corridor running roughly from Minnesota to Texas.

Iowa is the corridor’s hotbed. In West Branch, Iowa, Spanish wind-power giant Acciona last year renovated a former hydraulics factory. In Fort Madison, German wind-turbine blademaker Siemens set up shop in a former truck-trailer factory. Last spring, wind-tower maker Trinity Structural Towers took up residence in a former Maytag appliance factory in nearby Newton.

Such growth brought more than 1,000 new “green collar” jobs in wind manufacturing to Iowa just last year, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). Nationwide, wind-turbine manufacturing added 13,000 jobs for a total of 85,000 wind workers last year. That’s just the sort of shift President Obama will need in order to reach his goal of doubling renewable energy capacity in three years and growing jobs.

The Midwest is uniquely suited
Clipper decided on the old printing presses factory in Cedar Rapids due to the plant’s central location to future wind development in Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. Other factors included the growing supply chain of turbine components, as well as this big factory – whose reinforced concrete floors can easily handle the 100-ton hub-and-nacelle assemblies.

In the world of wind turbines, bigger is better. Clipper’s “Liberty” wind turbine is not the biggest, although it is the largest made in the US at 2.5 megawatts of capacity – enough to supply more than 800 households with power. Fully deployed, the turbine is 262 feet high and its blades are each up to 160 feet long even. Even still, Clipper said last month it was working on an offshore turbine three times as big.

But a critical feature in locating the Clipper plant was the human factor – the pool of ready and skilled manufacturing workers like Mike Smith, who understands the discipline.