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.
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"Alternative-energy fields are going to be hot for a long time," says Don Woods, 80/20's founder and CEO.
Interest in wind power has been especially keen. Across the region, meetings organized to connect companies with turbine manufacturers have attracted big crowds. Officials say the makers of car parts are well equipped to make components for turbine manufacturers. "A gear box is a gear box," says Michele Sonderstrom, an analyst at NextEnergy, a Michigan nonprofit that promotes opportunities in alternative energy.
In a sense, the enthusiasm for wind reflects the desperation of firms who at present see few alternatives.
But it also reflects real advances in wind power. Wind produced less than 1 percent of electricity in 2008, but that share has been growing. Last year alone, new wind farms added 50 percent to US wind-power capacity.
Wind turbines erected in the United States have been mostly foreign-made, but that may be changing. Domestic turbine manufacturers have plans to double the number of assembly plants, which now stands at five.
But making wind-energy components may be harder than it looks. Utility-size turbines are designed to last for decades and require a precision in manufacturing that far exceeds that of automobiles.
Inspectors recently spent two days at HPM examining a pair of welded steel frames to hold turbine generators. They tested welds with ultrasound equipment and discussed fabrication details with employees.
"We're being introduced to very stringent standards now," says Mike Dorsten, an engineering manager, standing near a steel plate that served as an impromptu chalkboard. "It's new to us."
HPM, which started in 1877 making cider mills, was in a good position to reinvent itself as a wind-turbine purveyor. It had equipment that could bore, cut, and grind metal on a large scale. It had huge cranes that could lift hubs that weighed tens of thousands of pounds.
Even so, the transition meant "a lot of trial and error," says Gerald Sposato, vice president of sales and marketing. "Until you get involved in this and see the actual requirements, you don't see what's needed to participate."
Even renewable energy, moreover, has not escaped the economic downturn. In November, HPM had orders to keep it busy through 2012. But with wind projects unable to secure financing, most have been canceled or put on hold. The company, which employed as many as 175 workers in the 1990s, has had to lay off 60 percent of its force.
"[In fact,] 2010 will probably be our best year," says Mr. Filos. "The problem is getting there."
On a smaller scale, 80/20 Inc., a company in Columbia City, Ind., recently enlarged its line of aluminum frames for industrial machinery to include supports for solar panels.