Some ugliness emerged Friday just south of Grand Rapids, Mich., where fights broke out at Wayland Chevrolet on the same day dealership employees learned they would be losing their jobs. According to the Associated Press, the dealership blamed its fate on the ailing auto industry, and on the shutdown of a nearby General Motors stamping plant.
This is just one example of how emotion swells in this country around the auto industry. It made its mark on manufacturing like no other sector. In the Midwest, it almost single-handedly created the middle class.
But there's more to the Midwest than automotive. Go west of Grand Rapids, across Lake Michigan, and you"ll find Manitowoc, Wis.-based Tower Tech Systems, where 210 employees fabricate wind towers nearly 300 feet tall and almost 200 tons.
"There certainly is a big push federally and in the state for renewables, including wind," Paul Smith, vice president and chief operating officer told the Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter.
For me, Smith's choice of words speaks volumes. The alternative or renewable energy industry has been given single-word status: "renewables." Entrenched into the lexicon, the word and its associated industry have been given an overwhelming positive spin by mass media (which hasn"t treated the automotive industry so kindly).
Reading all the positive press, people forget that the wind business has ebbed and flowed like gusts on the prairie. As energy prices dropped, so did demand for wind energy. Matt Garran, director of technical services at the Great Lakes Wind Network, an organization promoting the wind supply chain in the region, has studied these boom and busts extensively: how a number of wind turbines provided DC power to farms and ranches from the 1920s to the 1950s; how rural electrification and cheap power stunted industry growth by the 1950s and 1960s; how the energy crises in the 1970s sparked renewed interest; and how energy price drops in the 1980s caused that interest to ebb yet again.
This time, however, may be different. Garran conceded that 2009 has been a rough year for the industry. Wind projects take a lot of capital, and such funds aren't so easy to come by these days. As just one example, T. Boone Pickens, the Texas oilman who planned to build expansive wind farms in his home state, has scaled back because of the significant drop in natural gas prices.
"This is a good hiccup" for the industry, Garran said, adding that the current economic climate tempered the industry's unsustainable growth. "It has allowed things to slow down." As wind technology and manufacturing techniques are continually perfected, the wind business may experience steadier (though perhaps not quite as dramatic) growth in the future, he explained.
As evident by Tower Tech, wind tower production continues. Nobody expects it to replace the auto industry, and the wind industry and other "renewable" sectors aren't immune to business cycles. But alternative energy does give the Midwest (and U.S. manufacturing overall) something else. Being so tied to one sector can be risky business these days. In the decades to come, diversification may be U.S. manufacturing's saving grace.