The wind was blowing just a bit harder than average in Fort Smith, Arkansas, this past October 16th, according to local weather reports. But wind was making news that day for a different reason: Mitsubishi Power Systems announced that it would locate a wind turbine manufacturing facility in the city on the Arkansas-Oklahoma border, with plans to create more than 400 new jobs. It is one of several wind energy projects that have been completed or announced for Arkansas over the past two years, creating an emerging industry cluster that is poised to bring thousands of jobs to the state.
The cluster's beginnings can be traced back to 2007, when Denmark-based LM Glasfiber, the world's largest manufacturer of wind turbines, announced that it would build a $150 million factory at the Port of Little Rock, along the Arkansas River, with projections for more than 1,000 jobs by 2012. According to a December 2008 article in Arkansas Business, the state did not initially see the wind industry as a target for development, focusing instead on biofuels. But when Maria Haley signed on as executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC), she identified wind as a potential growth target; at the same time, state officials were contacted by site selection consultants who were conducting the location search for LM Glasfiber. The process took about five months from initial contact to announcement.
Within a year, other companies in the wind industry were following. One of those companies is Nordex USA, a subsidiary of Germany-based turbine manufacturer Nordex AG. In October 2008, around the time that LM Glasfiber was opening its facility in Little Rock, Nordex announced a $100 million factory in Jonesboro, near the Tennessee border in the northeastern part of the state. Arkansas, says Nordex USA's President and CEO Ralf Sigrist, "has the needed infrastructure to deliver some of the largest wind turbines produced in the U.S." The company broke ground in September 2009 and announced its intention to hire up to 700 people by 2014. "The existing work force in northeastern Arkansas has a strong base of technical skills that, given the right training, can be transferred to wind turbine manufacturing," says Sigrist. Production is expected to begin in mid-2010. Other companies in the Arkansas cluster include Polymarin Composites, a subsidiary of Netherlands-based Emergya Wind Technologies, which plans to invest $16 million for a facility in Little Rock that will create 630 jobs; and Wind Water Technology, an Emergya supplier that will operate out of the same plant, creating 200 jobs.
To facilitate the specialized skills workers will need, educational institutions in the state are providing industry-specific training. Len T. Frey, Ph.D., dean of the Arkansas State University College of Business, says his institution is working with Nordex to provide advanced manufacturing training based on the principles of "mechatronics," a process he says is used widely in Europe but is catching on in the United States. "This cutting-edge training that is being developed across the state will benefit other non-wind industry manufacturers here in the state," he says.
The development of the cluster hit a bit of a bump earlier this year, when LM Glasfiber cut 150 jobs and shut down a secondary facility it had opened separately from its main site at the Port of Little Rock. A company news release blamed the layoffs and shutdown on difficult financing conditions and said it was preparing for "lower growth rates in the short term," but the company is committed to employing more than 350 workers in Little Rock, and expressed optimism for future operations: "The long-term outlook for wind is strong, and the U.S. is still the world's number-one wind energy market. We're confident that the long-term demand will rebound."
In spite of the economy, experts believe the developing cluster will prove successful and beneficial. "Relatively speaking, wind energy is in its infancy - especially in the U.S. - and growth opportunities appear substantial," says Frey. He believes additional suppliers and component manufacturers will come to the state to supply the large companies that have already committed to operations. "It is important to note that these new suppliers and component manufacturers that we expect to come in might well locate in smaller communities around the state," he says. "Thus, the benefit from the wind industry cluster will not be limited to the communities that are attracting the large, well-publicized firms; the benefit will extend to a much larger base."