A diverse wind industry on display in Detroit By Chris Madison

The Small and Community Wind Conference and exhibition was a first for AWEA, and program organizers saw the attendance as a sign of strong interest in two sectors of the wind power industry that are coming into their own.

The Small and Community Wind conference and Exhbition took place in concert with AWEA’s Supply Chain Workshop. Total attendance was more than 2100, splt roughly evenly among three topic areas, according to the conference organizers.

“The numbers indicate the tremendous interest in small wind,” said Charles Newcomb, a small wind program co-chair and Vice President of NextGen Energy. “The meetings were well attended right until the end of the conference. There was a strong desire among attendees to know more about small wind,” he said.

That enthusiasm was also in evidence on the show floor, where exhibitors reported not only leads for future sales but even deals closed this week. One small wind turbine manufacturer reported that he sold 10 of his $70,000 turbines over the two day conference.

Community Wind organizers were also enthusiastic. This sector is less visible than small wind, and there are still different views about how to define it. But there was no doubt the interest about one third of those who registered indicated their interest was in community wind, and the agenda, which ranged from the Wind for School program to the challenges of selling power to rural coops and utilities, as well as financing and project development sessions, reflected both the diversity of players and willingness to take on tough issues.

“This conference is really the coming of age event for Community Wind,” said Jacob Susman, CEO of OwnEnergy, a community wind developer, and co-chair of the conference. “A number of compelling factors have converged to create the ‘perfect storm’ for Community Wind in the U.S., including the need for local jobs, economic development and renewable projects that can seamlessly connect to the existing grid infrastructure.

Proving his point, during the week, OwnEnergy announced a partnership with a subsidiary of the Nationals Farmers Union to develop a 20 MW wind project in in Otter Tail County, Minnesota.

The increased visibility of small and community wind is a positive development. The wind industry as a whole will grow in political clout as it broadens its scope and image. The Wind for Schools program, for example, which was extensively discussed in Detroit, allows the industry to build a rural base of support that may well differ from the constituency that grows out of utility-scale development.

So, too, connecting with rural electric cooperatives, seemingly a natural constituency for wind energy, may be easier as more coops buy power from community wind developers.

One sign that small and community wind have been granted a more permanent seat at the table—planning is already starting on next year’s program.

A supply chain guru spreads the good word in Detroit

There have been record crowds at the AWEA conference and exhibition in Detroit this week—the number of attendees registered edged over 2000, not including the general public who came in every afternoon to see the small wind turbines displayed on the exhibition floor.

In part, the attendance stems from the fact that three distinct subjects are being discussed—small wind, community wind, and the wind energy supply chain—and each brings its own constituency. But more than that, the numbers are driven by the hunger for jobs, and the desire to become part of the new energy economy.

The supply chain, despite its dry economics-department designation, is what makes wind attractive to the Midwest. The region’s manufacturing capabilities and skills are going unused due to the slow demise of the auto industry and the brutal severity of the current recession. Because of the need to manufacture the 8000 components that comprise a turbine, wind energy holds the prospect of rekindling America’s manufacturing might.

So hundreds came to this week’s conference to learn how to make the journey from the "rust belt to the greenbelt," as Michigan’s Gov. Jennifer Granholm aptly describes it. Dan Radomski, vice president of NextEnergy and one of the supply chain conference program chairs, is helping to draw the map. A former machinist also who spent a decade at the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, he has both the training and the innate ability to “see how any product is made,” as he puts it. He also can put it into plain English and adds a dose of passion that brightens a potentially boring subject. Mostly, he makes the supply chain sound like a living entity.

If you want to enter the supply chain, he explained at a session this week, you should understand (among other things) how wind energy technology is evolving, which components need the most repairs, and which components the large turbine manufacturers “outsource” rather than build themselves.

This week, Radomski used the latest research—some of it available only for a hefty price—to show attendees how to analyze the wind supply chain in great detail: know who the players are, what they make, what they outsource, and where, and whether it is a durable component.

If, for example, you want to enter the “aftermarket repair business.” Radomski will tell you that gear boxes are a good choice because they wear out more often than other components. But you also have to know how long it takes to repair one, and have on-the-shelf inventory to provide a working unit while you repair the non-working one, so the turbine is not out of service for long.

One of Radomski’s persistent messages these days is that the wind industry, while mature, is not perfect. The component “failure rate” is too high and the industry “better get a handle on durability.” He has been a key actor in Michigan’s efforts to land the DOE funding to build a national wind turbine drive train testing center here in Detroit. While it would cost more than $100 million, Radomski says, it would contribute to the development of turbines that fail less often. (Radomski’s vision of the supply chain includes design engineering and testing as part of the manufacturing process.)

At his core, Radomski is an optimist. He believes that most products can be redesigned to work better. So it is not a surpise to learn that he believes Michigan’s image as a failed state is overblown. He was a key player in the state’s efforts to help Michigan suppliers transition to the wind industry, resulting in over $670 million in new business awarded to Michigan suppliers in alternative energy markets since 2006. (There are 70 Michigan companies involved in the wind industry now, compared with 20 in 2006.)

“I think Michigan will rebound just fine. Michigan is not just about the auto industry. We are already diversified. We just need to be diligent and smart,” he says.