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WIND ENERGY Plate mills are reaping profits down on the wind farm

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Green rush? That might be too strong a term, but just as the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada kicked off the California gold rush in the mid-1800s, wind energy has enormous boom potential. And the steel industry stands at the head of the line to receive the windfall, with those not already involved in the industry at least taking a very close look at it.

Nucor Corp., Charlotte, N.C., began making plate for wind towers in 2005 and has steadily increased its participation since then, said Jeff Whiteman, sales manager at plate mill Nucor Steel-Hertford.

"Based on forecasts from the tower manufacturers, we expect business conditions to be strong for the next several years," Whiteman said, noting that many tower manufacturers are sold out through 2008 and are taking orders for 2009. The market for steel in wind and other alternative energies could grow as much as 15 percent a year, he added.

In May, ArcelorMittal announced plans to restart its plate mill in Gary, Ind., thanks in part to increased demand for plate in wind towers (AMM, May 25).

The average U.S. tower uses tens of thousands of tons—and sometimes more than 100,000 tons—of commodity-grade plate. Offshore towers, a growing market within the already booming wind energy business, can use even more. Steve Lundmark, vice president of sales and marketing at Claymont Steel Holdings Inc., Claymont Del., said the offshore market could grow significantly, especially in the North Atlantic and off the European coast. Claymont has already received inquiries and made some quotes, he said. "With the value of the dollar vs. the euro, and the demand for steel plate in Europe, it doesn't put us at a disadvantage. We watch it, and for jobs that make sense we're going to do it."

Timken Co. has already jumped headfirst into the wind energy business, according to Gerald P. Fox, chief technologist of power transmissions and controls at the Canton, Ohio-based steelmaker. "Timken is looking to make a major move into that industry," he said. "The projected growth is so high, demand certainly outstrips supply for the foreseeable future."

The company has been introducing precision-engineered products to the wind energy sector for the past six years, including gear systems and bearings. Some of the bearings are small, but others weigh up to 4 tonnes.

The bearings are necessary to support the massive forces generated by the drivetrain connected to the rotor blades. "They may look like these very slow, mesmerizing machines," Fox said of windmills. "But it's huge power. It's equivalent to having a diesel locomotive up on your tower. And the bearings have to support that load."

With so much demand, however, chances are that those needs simply can't be met. That's especially true for the large gears used to transmit power in windmills. "Demand is just overwhelming right now, not just in the U.S. but worldwide," Joe T. Franklin, president of the American Gear Manufacturers Association, Alexandria, Va., said. "In a sense, it's sucking all of the oxygen out of the room."

Companies like Allegheny Technologies Inc. (ATI), Pittsburgh, also are getting into the act with ductile iron castings that are used to hold the blades together at the point where they meet the turbine. Some of the castings weigh as much as 40,000 pounds, said Dan Greenfield, the specialty metals company's director of investor relations.

The castings business is a small one for ATI, he said, but noted that wind energy is a growing part of that business. "Alternative energy is a fast-growing market, and one that is a focus for us."


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