America’s wind corridor
From Minnesota to Texas, wind power sweeps new jobs into old-tech towns.
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.
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.
“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.
“Before this, I was building concrete sewer pipes,” says Mr. Smith, who takes a moment from handpolishing gear teeth to a mirror finish. “I’m really enjoying this because it’s a job you can be proud of. I can say I did my part helping the nation’s energy situation and the environment.”
Still, the push toward a wind-manufacturing “critical mass” that could lower the $2-3 million cost for a typical wind turbine and accelerate mass deployment, has clearly hit a pothole. With stiff credit markets, weaker financing for wind-farm construction has stalled a number of developments. Experts at AWEA predict a 25 to 50 percent slowdown this year in wind-farm development. That slower demand has clipped Clipper’s backlog. Although Loyd denies any outright cancellations, the factory is filling up with sold turbines that can’t be shipped yet. Last month, Clipper laid off 90 of its 380 workers due to slack demand.
“The US wind energy industry’s performance in 2008 confirms that wind is an economic and job-creation dynamo,” AWEA president Denise Bode said in a statement. “At the same time, it is clear that the economic and financial turmoil have begun to take a toll on new wind development.”
Other analysts agree that if the wind industry can get enough of a boost from the pending stimulus package – including up to $24 billion in tax incentives, renewable-energy loan guarantees, and an extension of a vital production tax credit – business will remain steady this year.
Even though the US boasts 25,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity – enough to power 7 million homes – that’s still just about 1.5 percent of the nation’s electricity.
“We still see the overall health of the US wind industry in very good shape and poised to scale in future years,” says Matt Kaplan, a senior wind analyst at Emerging Energy Research in Boston. “It is hindered only a little by this blip in financial markets.”
Wanted: Turbine repairmen
Even amid the economic gloom, demand is still soaring in one wind-energy area: wind-turbine technicians. Wind-farm growth has come on so fast worldwide that huge demand remains for technicians to maintain them.
Zip four hours northwest of Cedar Rapids to the town of Estherville. Set amid the cornfields, it enjoys one institution that has become a critical hub for the wind corridor: Iowa Lakes Community College. The school has carved out a niche training wind technicians. Its hands-on training on its own turbines is considered among the best in the nation.
“Even with the slowdown, we’re seeing really strong demand and we’re expanding our program,” says Harold Prior, president of the college.
Last fall, 220 students applied for 72 first-year openings in Iowa Lakes’ two-year program. Charles Higgins is one of those. Emerging from a hydraulics class, he ponders his long-distance move from balmy Richmond, Va., to the wind-swept landscape of northern Iowa in January.
“It was a big move for me,” he says. “I wondered at first if wind power might be a fad. But it’s clear to me now this industry is for real.”
Once a psychology major at a four-year school, he gave up the warmth of home for wind power. He figures it’s a good paying job that will keep him in shape since most wind turbine towers don’t have elevators, Mr. Higgins jokes.
“One of the first things they did was to have us climb the ladder inside the tower to the top,” he says. “It was 260 feet high and I was really scared, but I didn’t tell anyone. I’ve done it a lot since, so now I actually like it. It’s a really nice view.”