Siemens wind energy plant in Hutchinson

The new Siemens wind turbines nacelle plant in Hutchinson gleamed like a new car at Friday’s official unveiling, with bright lights shining down from a four-story tall ceiling and fresh paint on all the fixtures and hoists. The 300,000-square-foot plant now employs 130 people, a number expected to climb to 400 within about a year.

Internationalization is one of the main pillars of Siemens´ wind power strategy. “In two to three years time we’ll have twelve wind turbine production facilities in seven countries. We’ll thus have even closer customer intimacy,” said René Umlauft, CEO of the Siemens Renewable Energy Division. Currently, the company has seven manufacturing facilities in three countries.

“We’re also working intensively on further reducing costs through the industrialization of production processes and innovations such as our direct drive wind turbine. Over the last two years we’ve tripled our wind power R&D budget and, in 2011, we’ll continue to increase it significantly. Our mid-term aim with wind power is to achieve full grid parity with fossil fuels,” said Umlauft. Wind turbines are part of Siemens’ Environmental Portfolio.

The company invited several hundred people to tour the plant, hear speeches and see the unveiling of the first nacelle, which eventually will be put on a rail car and shipped to Puget Sound Energy’s Lower Snake River wind farm in Washington.

A nacelle, which weighs 185,000 pounds, consists of an enormous generator, axle and gears housed in one unit sitting hundreds of feet in the air. The blades are made at a Siemens plant in Fort Madison, Iowa.

Just getting the wind power plant open was an achievement, said Eric Spiegel, president of Siemens US, who was at the ceremony.

"We had nothing on this floor 59 days ago," he said. "Our plant people from Germany and the Netherlands and Denmark said this is amazing."

State and local officials in Hutchinson worked like crazy to land Siemens in 2009 in the hopes that it will anchor a new industrial cluster.

Spiegel said that’s likely. One company, Draka, a Dutch maker of wire and cable, already has said it will set up operations in Hutchinson.

"As demand picks up, you will see more and more of our supply chain moving here," he said. "They know that is the way to make themselves more competitive."

But, Spiegel added, the economic impact in the long-term depends on the growth of the industry. And that, he said, depends on a rebound in electricity demand, which is tied to the economy, plus a renewal of a federal tax credit and a minimum alternative energy requirement for utilities called a renewable electricity standard.

That, and Kansas’ underdeveloped potential, central location and trained manufacturing labor force, will be a magnet, he said.

However, Spiegel cautioned, China is starting to make large investments in wind energy technology.

"The obvious plan as they improve their quality and lower their costs is that they are going to be looking at exporting those things to places like the U.S.," Spiegel said. "That is why it is so important that we make the investment in these technologies now, so that we don’t end up importing better technology from outside."

Gov.-elect Sam Brownback, also on hand for the ceremony, said it is critical that Kansas keep pushing wind development, even with a tight state budget.

"It’s tough in light of a difficult budget," he said, "but as I’ve said throughout the campaign, we’ve got to grow."

He said it is likely Congress would renew production tax credits. He said he also likes the chances of a "modest" renewable energy requirement.

"If it’s modest, and if it includes oil and gas, nuclear and offshore. An energy package is the only way to get the votes — and it has to be modest. We cannot raise people’s utility rates."

By Dan Voorhis,