Breaking Into Wind Energy

By Amanda Earing, News Editor, Manufacturing.net Opportunities abound for manufacturers looking to either become a supplier in the wind industry or use wind energy to help power their plants.

The wind energy market has been steadily making strides in the U.S. over the past several years and manufacturers looking to diversify should take a close look at the wind energy market to determine if it’s the right move.

The wind industry is a growing segment of the energy and green technology market. Before the recession, wind energy developments were at a record high, but as funds dried up, wind energy projects tapered off. However, Matt Garran, Supply Chain Manager at the American Wind Energy Association predicts that as the economy improves and banks start lending again, wind energy will continue to grow in 2010.

Becoming a supplier in the wind industry is an incredible opportunity, but it is not for everyone. As a global market, there are some challenges for North American manufacturers that wish to break into wind.

“The requirements and expectations are little bit different than what most North American manufacturers are used to. It's one reason many people balk once they spend time evaluating the wind market,” says Garran.

However, with the proper tools and extensive research, manufacturers can effectively determine if the wind energy market is right for them.

“Entering the wind industry takes a strong commitment by management as well as employees to produce the best components at the lowest possible price because you're competing in a global market. Most North American companies are at a disadvantage because almost all specifications are based upon metric standards that some may not have a lot of background, understanding or knowledge of,” says Garran.

Because of this, Garran says those that step into wind should expect a lot of cultural and corporate change as well as some growing pains.

Manufacturers that are eyeing this industry typically fall into three categories: job shops, automotive suppliers and aerospace or defense industry companies. Of these three sectors, the aerospace/defense industry typically has the easier transition -- they have well-suited machinery, skilled workers and their volumes are similar to the wind industry.

But regardless of what sector you’re in, Garran says entering the wind energy market must be a long-term commitment -- anywhere from 10 to 20 years. He says wind turbine manufacturers are looking for suppliers that will become their partners and grow with them as opportunities increase.

For manufacturers interested in the wind energy market, Garren suggests they start researching as much as possible and engage in industry organizations. The AWEA puts out programs about the supply chain and other facets of the wind industry to help you learn as much as you can. By becoming actively engaged in the industry, you’ll show potential customers that you’re committed to the wind market.

And because demand has pulled back, the time to investigate the wind energy market is now.

“Now isn’t necessarily the right time to be making major investments in hopes that you’re going to land this work. But by doing your research and determining if entering the market works for you, you can have everything in line so that when the market comes back into swing, you’ll be well-suited to move in this direction,” says Garran.

Using Wind To Power Your Facility

For manufacturers interested in using wind to lower their energy bills, Garren says you can get 30 percent cash back for the total project cost on larger units (1mW or larger) once it is up and running. But he cautions that you must do your research before putting in your own wind tower.

“Wind energy makes good sense in places where the wind is strong year-round. And if you don't do the studies and determine what is your wind strength, velocity, density -- your chances of getting a good payback or return on your investment will be greatly hampered,” says Garren.

Take a year to study the wind measurements in your area. Analyze the data from your own instruments along with weather centers in your area and compare that information against two or three of the past years’ data from the weather center. Only then will you get a really good idea of the wind performance seen on a regular basis.

Be aware that wind will not power your facility 100 percent. Wind, as a variable resource, typically is strongest in the evening hours and will diminish in the middle of the day. There will also be days with no wind present at all. If you’re looking to further reduce your energy output, it is best to combine wind with solar power -- and this works even more effectively when combined with natural gas.

“Unlike coal and nuclear, natural gas can be turned on relatively quickly and shut down the same way. With wind and solar it’s pretty easy to predict where you’ll have your peaks and when it diminishes. If you balance those with natural gas, it’s a win-win because you reduce the amount of natural gas consumed which lowers your energy costs,” says Garran.

For manufacturers considering a wind tower, Garran says to expect payback on the project to take anywhere from 7 to 10 years, but the remaining 10 years will likely run at a profit.

To learn more about wind energy, visit the American Wind Energy Association at www.awea.org

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