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Wind Shift

MSU conference puffs up interest in turbine manufacturing

September 6, 2007 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

EAST LANSING—With 3,100 miles of breezy Great Lakes shoreline, dozens of manufacturing plants capable of turning out turbines and blades and gears, and the engineering know-how that comes from a century of industrial development, it’s surprising that Michigan has not yet found its place in the growing American wind industry.

U.S. Dept. of Energy
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On September 10, the Land Policy Institute at Michigan State University takes a big step to change that, at the first "Manufacturing and Developing Wind Energy Systems in Michigan" conference. More than 200 industrialists, utility industry executives, business leaders, policy specialists, researchers, and investors are expected to attend the two-day event.

The intent of the conference is not only to stimulate the $20 billion global wind industry’s interest in settling in Michigan to design and manufacture generating equipment, but also to recruit companies to develop the state’s potential as a source of wind energy.

The conference, co-sponsored by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and NextEnergy, a non-profit energy development group in Detroit, begins at 10:00 a.m. on Monday at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center on the campus of Michigan State University.

A list of high-profile speakers is on the conference program, headed up by Michigan’s two-term Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm, who frequently says she is an advocate of renewable energy. Also scheduled to speak are Soren Krohn, a Danish wind energy expert; Soji Adelaja, the John A. Hannah distinguished professor in land policy and director of the Land Policy Institute; Fred P. Keller, chairman and chief executive officer of Cascade Engineering in Grand Rapids, which manufactures renewable energy systems for the residential and commercial markets; and M.N. Pedersen, the vice president of procurement for Siemens Power Generation.

Siemens’ story could have particular resonance in Michigan, which abounds in closed industrial facilities. Last year the company turned a long-shuttered semi-truck trailer plant in Fort Madison, Iowa, into a modern factory that manufactures 12-ton, 148-foot, fiberglass epoxy-resin blades for its 2.5-megawatt turbines. The first shipment, bound for a wind farm near Abilene, Tex., left the 250-employee plant in mid-August.

Siemens executives note that the United States is adding more than 2,500 megawatts of new wind generating capacity annually, or more than 1,500 new turbines a year. Texas has the most windmills—just over 3,000—followed by California (2,400), Iowa (roughly 1,000), and Minnesota (900), according to renewable energy groups.

An Enormous Market
At $1.5 million to $2 million each, the market for new wind generating equipment in the United States alone is roughly $3 billion annually. The market worldwide is $20 billion, according to renewable energy manufacturing companies.

By putting local industrial suppliers in the same room with executives from Siemens, General Electric, Vestas, and other makers of wind energy equipment, conference organizers hope to begin attracting a portion of that manufacturing activity to Michigan.

"We have the plants, the people, and the capacity in our manufacturing and university sectors to do almost anything that’s needed by the wind power industry," said Michael Klepinger, an MSU Extension specialist and wind energy expert at the MSU Land Policy Institute, and the conference’s principal organizer.

Governor Granholm, who’s called on Michigan’s industrialists to embrace renewable energy as a new economic sector, shared a similar view in remarks earlier this year at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids.

"This is an area as a state that we should be capitalizing on," the governor said. "This state can be a magnet state for both wind and solar industries."

A Very Slow State
At the moment, however, Michigan is neither. Though plans are underway to build and start generating electricity next year from new wind farms east of Cadillac and in Huron County, the fact is that Michigan has just three commercial wind turbines, fewer than any other state in the Great Lakes region.

Michigan has been slow to adopt legislation to encourage or require generating electricity from wind and other sources of renewable energy. And some citizens and lawmakers have expressed uncertainty about building giant windmills in farm and scenic areas.

"The potential for this industry is huge in Michigan," said Mr. Klepinger. "People are uncertain about wind because they are unfamiliar with it. There is a natural fear of the unknown. We have a lot to learn from communities that have embraced wind power."

Michigan has been down this renewable energy path before. Following the Arab oil embargoes of the 1970s, Governor William G. Milliken and state business executives collaborated on several plans in the early 1980s to put Michigan manufacturers at the forefront of clean energy development. Neither industrialists nor university researchers, though, were terribly enthused.

In 1984, for instance, Gary Park, an engineering professor at Michigan State University, published a study that said winds weren’t strong enough in Michigan to power the industry. But a new wind map, published by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2004, belies that conclusion: It finds that Michigan is the nation’s 14th-windiest state.

Now oil prices, public concern over pollution, and growing alarm about global warming are pushing wind power to the forefront of energy development plans in many places. Last year in the U.S., for example, utilities and private companies managed 11,603 megawatts of wind-generated electric capacity, four times as much as existed in 2000. Annual global growth rates are expected to reach 25 percent for the foreseeable future, according to industry experts.

That begs the question that researchers at the MSU Land Policy Institute are trying to answer: What does it take for Michigan to be an important player in national and global markets wind energy markets?

MSU Jumps In
Mr. Klepinger said that Monday’s conference of wind manufacturers and developers, the first big event of a new Wind Energy Policy Initiative that the Land Policy Institute started earlier this year, will produce new ties between business executives and policy makers, and begin providing some of the answers.

Whatever the initiative and the conference achieve will bolster the efforts of the Michigan Wind Energy Research Collaborative, which plans to foster research by teams of state university scientists that can help government and industry overcome impediments to wind energy development in the state. Among the collaborative’s objectives are identifying the capital, labor, land, manufacturing, and policy needs of a healthy wind industry in Michigan.

MSU’s Wind Policy Initiative also is advising state and local elected officials. Earlier this year, for instance, the Land Policy Institute published land use and planning guidelines to make it easier for local officials to understand the dimensions of the new industry. The guide also provides expert advice to help communities sort through the various citizen concerns and develop the public process for permitting new wind turbines in their jurisdictions.

Much of the state’s potential, according to a prototype online "prospecting tool" developed by the Land Policy Institute, is available at a select group of particularly windy sites in the Thumb region, along the northern Lake Michigan coast from Arcadia to Northport, and from Charlevoix to Mackinaw City. Parts of the Lake Superior shoreline in the Keewanaw Peninsula also are strong candidates.

The economic affects of a state wind industry are substantial, according to the Land Policy Institute. Owners of large tracts of land could gain several thousand dollars a year for every windmill built on their ground. Michigan wind farms could employ hundreds of people to operate and maintain wind mills. Developing and manufacturing wind generating equipment could produce thousands more jobs.

"Our goal," said Mr. Klepinger, "is to make Michigan the most attractive place for manufacturing and developing wind energy."

Keith Schneider is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s editor. Reach him at keith@mlui.org

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