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Can wind power save the Midwest?

Renewable energy isn’t big enough to offset declines in the auto industry, but companies are gung-ho for any new business.

By Richard MertensCorrespondent / August 24, 2009

Diversified: Dan Adams uses an industrial-grade cutting torch at Ohio firm HPM America to make a part for a machine used in automaking. The company now also makes parts for wind turbines.

Richard Mertens


Mount Gilead, Ohio

The hum and whir that rise from the factory floor at HPM America, a machining business in central Ohio, are the sounds of a company in transition.

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In one part of the plant, workers bore holes in thick steel for a machine that will make car parts. Not far away, another worker guides a computer-controlled grinder that scours a bright ring on a massive globe of cast steel, which looms above him like the submersible capsule from a Jules Verne novel. It's a wind turbine hub.

Adam White, who tracks the grinder's progress on a glowing screen, and other HPM workers owe their jobs to a decision three years ago to shift from the car business, which was dwindling, to making parts for wind turbines. Without that, says Chris Filos, HPM's owner and CEO, "We'd have been out of business long ago."

The promise of wind and other forms of renewable energy has cast a ray of hope into an otherwise bleak economy, especially in the industrial Midwest.

"A couple years ago, there weren't that many people interested," says Edward Wolking, head of the Great Lakes Manufacturing Council. "Now they're just beating doors down."

For those hoping renewable-energy technologies will save the economy of the Midwest, there's a long way to go. Only 7 percent of US energy consumption last year came from renewables, and a June report by the Pew Charitable Trusts said the renewable-energy industry accounted for just 89,000 jobs in 2007.

But President Obama has urged a national goal of 25 percent renewable energy by 2025, a standard that the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates would yield 297,000 new jobs (44,500 in manufacturing).

Moreover, 26 states require utilities to draw part of their energy supply from renewables, and the economic stimulus legislation Congress passed in February included $21 billion in tax credits for renewable energy and $30 billion for clean-energy programs. Measures to curb carbon emissions, now in Congress, would no doubt be a boon for the renewables industry.

Even so, few analysts expect renewables alone to revive manufacturing in the Midwest. Rather, they foresee manufacturing becoming more diverse and developing along lines already established: medical equipment, heavy machinery, aeronautics, defense, and automobiles.

"You're not going to replace jobs lost in steel or automotive [by] making wind turbines," says Mr. Wolking. "It's not going to be the next big thing. It will be one of the next important things."

Enterprising companies are already finding opportunities in wind and solar power and advanced battery technology. Hemlock Semiconductor, in Saginaw, Mich., has transformed itself from a maker of semiconductors into the world's foremost producer of polysilicon, a key material in solar photovoltaic devices.