The push to develop wind power sources has slowed a bit in 2009, but it's starting to gain momentum again, as attendees at the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association's Wind Energy Conference found out Sept. 15 in Elgin, Ill., at Mazak Optonics Corp.
Last year more than 8,400 megawatts of wind energy-producing turbines were installed across the U.S., which was a 50 percent increase over the year before. This firmly cements this country as the largest producer of wind energy in the world, according to Jeff Anthony, director of business development, American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), at least until China firmly jumps on the alternative-energy bandwagon.
Even though this is an "off" year for the wind power industry, Anthony said, more than 4,000 MW were installed in the first half of 2009. That pace is expected to pick up with the recent Congressional passage of key production tax credits.
The movement is expected to have staying power with the Obama administration dedicated to having 20 percent of all U.S. energy needs met by wind power over the next couple of decades. That's a commitment that should excite metal fabricators, as each wind turbine contains about 8,000 unique metal pieces.
What sort of metal parts? On the large side, you are talking about the giant "cans" that are 14 ft. in diameter at the tower base and that have to be rolled out of 0.50- to 2-in. plate. On the smaller side, you are talking about cable trays and electrical boxes found in the nacelle, also known as the machine head made from light-gauge sheet metal.
Fabricators at the conference got the chance to hear about what it takes to be a part of the supply chain for wind turbine manufacturers. Industry association representatives and Gene Cuenot, vice president, Vestas Nacelles America, the U.S. arm for one of the world's largest wind turbine manufacturers, laid out some of the basic requirements for potential suppliers to the industry:
- Matt Garran, technical director, Great Lakes Wind Network, said metal fabricators have to offer something different to stand out from competitors who are all chasing to supply this industry as a result of the economic slowdown. A metal fabricator has to show capabilities that other competitors cannot match or to own automation advancements that make it cost-competitive with other global suppliers.
- A metal fabricator doesn't have to be ISO-certified, but it helps. If a company isn't, it should at least have some sort of quality system in place that's been audited by a reputable third-party source and that results in an action list to correct any shortcomings, according to Garran.
- A shop has to be flexible enough to work with volumes in the 40 to 400 range for three or four different wind turbine manufacturers. This industry is not about the high volumes that automotive suppliers are used to. Volumes may increase as more individual jobs with different part numbers are sent to the suppliers, but that comes only after winning the respect of the wind turbine OEMs.
- Shops have to be open to working with the metric system. Most of the OEMs are European, so they have their own set of rules.
Metal fabricators that are comfortable with these conditions and still want to pursue relationships with these OEMs have a growing field to investigate. Jack Schroeder, sales manager for ESAB Welding Automation, said that he knows of 11 turbine assembly facilities in the U.S., two in Canada, and one in Mexico, with more sure to follow. Vestas plans to open what it calls the world's largest tower assembly facility in Pueblo, Colo., this fall.
With domestic manufacturing on the upswing, fewer metal parts are being imported. Garran estimated that U.S.-fabricated parts now account for more than 50 percent of all parts sourced for wind turbines made in the U.S., which is up from 30 percent only a few years ago.
Those interested in learning more about becoming a supplier to the wind energy OEMs can attend the AWEA Wind Power Supply Chain Workshop, Nov. 3-5, in Detroit, or WINDPOWER 2010 Conference and Exhibition, May 23-26, 2010, in Dallas.