Renewables, Wind

Investing in Wind

Issue 10 and Volume 111.

By David Wagman, Managing Editor

Fort Madison, Iowa, is about as Midwestern as you can get this side of a midtown Manhattan advertising agency. The town in late September is ringed by fields of corn being harvested (perhaps, these days, for ethanol). The Mississippi River flows wide and deep not far away. Tom Sawyer’s Hannibal, Mo., and Carl Sandburg’s Galesburg, Ill., are both within an easy drive.

And, beginning this summer, Ft. Madison is home to a Siemens Power Generation wind turbine blade manufacturing plant. The plant is one of Siemens’ largest investments outside of Denmark and underscores its plan to be one of the United States’ top three wind power manufacturers.

Wind turbines’ increasing numbers in the American landscape reaffirm a centuries-old practice of using the wind to do work. The blades on their own display a blend of engineering simplicity and design elegance. Seen up close on the plant floor their shape mimics that of a feather or perhaps the prow of a racing yacht.

I recently visited Siemens’ new plant. (While there I interviewed Randy Zwirn, president and CEO of Siemens Power Generation. To hear a podcast of that interview visit www.power-eng.com.) At Ft. Madison, Siemens manufactures 148-foot-long, 12-ton blades for its 2.3 MW machine. Virtually all of the materials (including epoxy, fiberglass and wood) are imported—for now. That includes balsa wood from Ecuador. Trees there grow in such a way that the wood grain is ideally suited for use in the blades. Environmental purists no doubt will enjoy figuring the carbon footprint left by importing materials from Denmark and harvesting trees in Ecuador to support U.S. wind power development. But with wind energy (as with everything else) there’s no free lunch.

Siemens points out that its blades are cast in one piece, with the fiberglass-reinforced epoxy structure requiring around 24 hours to set in the mold (also imported from Denmark). Once the blades are removed they are visually inspected for flaws. Each blade has a 20-year life expectancy and Siemens says that so far they have a zero failure rate. Lightning strikes pose the greatest damage threat, so blade tips are fitted with quarter-dollar-sized devices that act as lightning rods.

Ft. Madison can supply blades for 500 MW of wind capacity a year. That equals about 16 blades a week produced by 220 employees working three shifts a day. A year ago the 330,000-square-foot manufacturing plant was vacant. It had been used to build trailers and flatbeds for the trucking industry. Siemens visited sites throughout the Midwest before settling on the site, which it bought for $10 million. Siemens reviewed around 10 applicants for every opening at the plant, a sign that jobs in the area are in demand.

One trick in siting a wind blade plant is to find a place where trucks can move the finished blades without having to deal with sharp street corners. It makes sense: congested urban areas don’t necessarily lend themselves to easily moving 148-foot-long structures. The Ft. Madison site affords highway access, to be sure, and is close to the Mississippi River and two railroads. Rail delivery currently is not an option as Siemens has not yet ordered rail cars capable of carrying the blades.

For now, the blades’ primary markets are the United States and Canada; more specifically, those parts of the continent where Class 2 winds predominate. That includes mostly interior locations away from the coasts. The first blades shipped from Ft. Madison ended up at the 80 MW Sweetwater 5 wind farm being developed in Texas by Babcock and Brown. Representatives from the company were at Ft. Madison the day I visited. So were customers from FPL Energy, AES, MidAmerican Energy, Summit Power and Renewable Energy Systems. Orders from those companies will keep the plant fully occupied through 2009.

A week before my visit I drove across Kansas. West of Salina work is underway on a wind farm that will occupy the high, windy ridges next to I-70. TradeWind Energy of Lenexa, Kan., is building the 100 MW facility using 1.8 MW turbines from Vestas. The farm will spread over 10,000 acres. Farther west, out in the Flint Hills, billboards next to the highway oppose the “industrialization” of rural Kansas by wind farms.

The battle to stop Kansas’s industrialization ended 150 years ago when farmers and ranchers first brought plows, barbed wire and the nascent agri-industry to the plains. Corn, wheat and cattle replaced native plants and animals. Grain silos certainly are not native. Neither are the motels and fast food joints along I-70. Nor are the pumpjacks pulling natural gas and oil out of the ground. For that matter, neither are the billboards folks can rent to post anti-wind messages for the benefit of interstate motorists.

Wind energy has a legitimate role as part of the generation mix. Embracing it as the sole solution is not realistic. But neither is rejecting it for somehow threatening something that ceased to exist long ago. Wind turbines, like those being manufactured at Ft. Madison and installed in places like Salina, are merely a modern extension of the elegantly simple wind-driven devices that have been powering Midwest farms (and fueling ad agency imaginations) for generations.