Wind energy is booming across North America, and that means good business for companies making the wind-generating structures and their parts.
"It's definitely growing—2007 is expected to be the largest ever in terms of installed capacity," said an American Wind Energy Association spokeswoman. Global titans making turbines for windmills—like General Electric Co., Fairfield, Conn., Mitsubishi Corp., Tokyo; and Siemens AG, Munich, Germany—are the obvious beneficiaries of the worldwide interest in wind power. GE had the largest share of the U.S. market in 2006, she said. Vestas Wind Systems A/S, Randers, Denmark, came in second in terms of the number of installed turbines, although the Danish company is a larger provider than GE on a global basis.
But big companies like GE are only part of the wind energy picture. Often, a developer buys land for a windmill project and handles regulatory and other processes; the developer then contracts with a company like GE to provide the structures; that company, in turn, contracts with others to make the huge towers that support the turbines, the blades that harness the wind and the gearboxes and other parts that help generate electricity. Those smaller suppliers also are picking up steam.
"A lot of companies are coming into the business, but there is still not enough supply," Steve Huntington, chief financial officer of Tower Tech Systems Inc., Manitowoc, Wis., said.
Tower Tech operates from a Lake Michigan plant that used to make submarines during World War II. The facility is equipped with cranes that can lift as much as 200 tons, which is important because a 240-foot tower can use as much as 195,000 tons of steel.
The company was incorporated in 2003 and started production in 2006. It provides towers to turbine companies such as Clipper Windpower Inc., Carpinteria, Calif., and Gamesa Corporación Tecnológica SA, Madrid, Spain, but does most of its business in the Midwest, which is rich in what the industry calls "wind resources"—in other words, it's really windy.
Iowa leads the Midwest, with 976 megawatts (MW) of wind energy capacity, according to mid-year statistics from the American Wind Energy Association, about 7.7 percent of the U.S. total of 12,634 MW. It has a small lead over Minnesota's 897 MW, but is well behind Texas, where there is more than 3,300 MW of capacity, a figure that could reach 4,000 MW before the end of the year. A single megawatt can supply electricity to between 250 and 300 average U.S. homes.
Wind energy is gaining ground not only in the Midwest and strongholds like California and Texas, but also offshore in Northeast states such as Maryland. It's also picking up in Canada, where installed capacity has reached 1,588 MW, enough to power about 480,000 homes, according to the Canadian Wind Energy Association.
A large wind project coordinated by Canadian energy company Hydro-Québec, Montreal, aims to boost wind energy capacity in the province to 2,000 MW, said Eric Bellemare, Marmen Inc.'s business development director for Trois Rivières, a city in the Mauricie region of the province. Quebec-based Marmen makes wind towers. "Ontario is pushing hard, too," Bellemare said. "It's kind of a fight between the two provinces. Everyone is trying to get involved."
And it's not just businesses and governments getting in on the action. It's also catching on in residential construction. Frank Travetto, merchandising vice president at service center Earl M. Jorgensen Co., Lynwood, Calif., said he saw a windmill outside a home during a recent visit to Canada. "A big, beautiful mansion with a windmill in front. I've never seen anything like it for a residential property."
Wind energy also has been good for the gear business, Travetto said. "Windmills have really occupied a lot of time at gear shops. It's a market that, while it's been around for a while, it never had any great commercial value until recently."