John K. Borchardt (Fall 2011)
While the U.S. industrial giant General Electric and foreign firms like Vestas, Siemens, and others dominate production of the large wind turbines used on massive wind farms, small and mid-sized companies across the United States are manufacturing smaller wind turbines designed for use at the top of office towers and in facilities such as airports and shopping malls. These companies are increasing U.S. employment while contributing to the production of alternative energy. These small wind turbines power houses, small businesses, or farms, where they can reduce electric bills by approximately 20 percent.
Manufacturers of small wind turbines are knocking some of the rust off the Rust Belt. For example, Windspire Energy, founded in 2005 as Mariah Power, is producing small, low-cost silent wind turbines in Manistee, Michigan, at a former automotive parts factory. Currently 30 employees work in the plant but plans are to increase this to more than 120 jobs over the next three years. Unemployed auto industry workers are expected to be among the new hires.
Like automobiles, wind turbines are complex assemblies of small parts - up to 8,000 of them as small as ball bearings and as large as 30-foot turbine blades. Closed auto parts plants in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio are prime candidates to produce these parts. Iron foundries, metal fabricators, ball bearing makers, industrial fan producers, electrical circuitboard companies, and control device makers also will supply turbine manufacturing plants. Today, about half the components used in American wind turbines are made in the United States, compared with 25 percent in 2004, according to the American Wind Energy Association. European turbine makers are also seeking North American suppliers.
Makers of Vertical Turbines
California is a big player in small wind turbines. WePOWER of Aliso Viejo in Orange County, California, manufactures the Falcon™ line of vertical wind turbines. Besides being installed on many homes and small businesses, Falcon wind turbines have been installed on office buildings by major corporations such as Lockheed Martin, AT&T, Best Buy, and Tata Energy. And AeroVironment in Monrovia, California, manufactures a small wind turbine that sits on building parapets rather than the roof. It catches the wind as it travels up the side of a building. This design can result in a 30 percent increase in energy production.
Colorado-based New Millennium Wind Energy has chosen the Kansas Logistics Park in Newton, Kansas, for its first facility to manufacture vertical-axis wind turbines. Millennium expects high-volume demand from big-box stores. The plant, which represents a $20-30 million investment, is scheduled to be operational by July 2012 and initially employ 70 people, with employment to increase eventually to more than 350. In choosing the plant location, Millennium's founder and CEO Drew Thacker cited Newton's skilled local work force and its rail, barge, and highway access.
Small wind turbines won't replace big coal-burning electric power plants, but they will reduce the electricity bills of homes, businesses, and farms that install them - while also reducing global warming. Importantly, these small turbine and turbine parts manufacturers will also provide new U.S. jobs, creating a win-win situation.