Cancun, Hutchinson, and wind energy by AWEA CEO Denise Bode

While attaining an international agreement on climate action appears challenging, wind power provides the U.S. with a win-win opportunity: a way to reduce carbon emissions while at the same time revitalizing rural communities across the heartland and building a new manufacturing industry that can provide thousands of jobs.

This opportunity is exemplified by the grand opening this past week of a new wind turbines nacelle factory in Hutchinson, Kansas, by Siemens Energy. In the words of Kansas U.S. Senator and Governor-Elect Sam Brownback, "The grand opening of the Siemens wind nacelle manufacturing plant is great news for the Hutchinson community and the state of Kansas. The expansion of renewable energy infrastructure is critical as America looks for ways to decrease its dependence on foreign, non-renewable energy resources."

The new 300,000-square-foot facility is located in the heartland of the U.S. with highway and rail access to ship completed nacelles to wind farm projects in the U.S. and throughout the Americas, and it employs 130 people, a number that is expected to triple when the factory is fully operational.

How can we seize the opportunity the Hutchinson factory represents and create more wind energy manufacturing facilities across the U.S.? The key is stable, consistent federal policies to provide the certainty that businesses and investors need.

In the short term, the wind energy industry needs an extension of its tax incentive. And to provide the foundation for sustained industry growth in the years ahead, it needs the consistent policy (at no cost to the Treasury) that only a Renewable Electricity Standard will provide.


Plant’s premiere

Amid the blare of a locomotive’s horn, exploding fireworks and the applause and cheers of about 400 guests and employees on Friday, Siemens Wind Power ceremonially rolled out its first wind turbine nacelle from its new $30 million-plus, 300,000-square foot assembly plant in southeast Hutchinson.

The plant, which city, county and staff officials believe will be a key to rejuvenating the area economy, opened 59 days earlier and has 130 employees now. That will nearly triple in the next year as the plant ramps up production, which is expected to reach up to 650 nacelles a year for the booming wind energy industry, said Eric Spiegel, CEO of Siemens’ operations in the United States.

"This is placing a flagship wind manufacturing facility in the state of Kansas," said Sen. Sam Brownback, who will become governor next month. "This is a key get for the state because Siemens is one of the global leaders in wind technology, and now they’re bringing that to the state of Kansas."

Hutchinson Mayor Cindy Proett said she was impressed not just with the gleaming new facility but also with the employees who led visitors on a tour of the plant, explained the various parts of a completed 185,000-pound nacelle and described their jobs.

"You can just feel how excited they are to get this going," she said.

Kansas House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, said the grand opening was "a huge day" for the community.

"It’s one thing to see the drawings and the vision, but it’s a totally other thing to see it come to fruition," O’Neal said. "This is more impressive than what I expected to see. We could learn a lot from these people."

Siemens is a global leader in the renewable energy industry. But it is essentially just getting its feet wet in renewable energy in the United States.

Spiegel said that in 2004 Siemens had one wind industry employee in the United States. With the opening of the Hutchinson facility, the company’s first nacelle manufacturing plant in North America, Siemens now has 1,500 wind energy employees in the United States.

Nacelles are the bus-sized module to which the blades of the wind turbines are attached atop towers. The nacelles contain all the mechanical and electronic components for generating power from the wind.

Siemens had hoped to literally roll one of the nacelles out the door of the plant on Friday, but a specialized flatbed vehicle for some reason was unable to move the 185,000-pound giant. So Siemens ushered the dignitaries and guests outside to where three other completed nacelles awaited.

They then rolled one past the crowd on a special 19-axle vehicle that will be used to deliver nacelles when the distance to their installation is short. Another was mounted on a railroad flatcar, which pulled away amid exploding fireworks down a rail spur built for the plant at the Salt City Business Park.

Ground was broken on the plant last September, a year after Hutchinson was picked from among 85 cities that had vied for the plant.

"It quickly became clear that Hutchinson, Kansas, was the preferred candidate, and I think it was the preferred candidate for a lot of reasons, but the primary reason was the support we received from Reno County, the city Hutchinson and the state of Kansas," Spiegel said.

Siemens received a 10-year, 100 percent tax abatement that will save it $9.3 million in property taxes that would have been paid to the city, county, the Haven school district, Hutchinson Community College, the Hutchinson Public Library and the state.

It also received $5 million in bond financing from the state, which will be paid off from withholding taxes generated by new jobs created by the project. The city also gave Siemens 108 acres in the Salt City Business Park, $1 million and the promise of an additional $150,000 in equal installments from 2010 to 2013. Reno County provided $700,000 and South Hutchinson $150,000 more.

Siemens also received $4.3 million in federal tax credits.

Siemens officials also saw Hutchinson as ideally placed within the windblown corridor of the central plains of the United States. Before the plant even opened, it had orders in hand for all the nacelles it can produce in 2011 and then some.

The four nacelles produced so far at the Hutchinson plant will be among 149 that will be shipped to a wind farm in the Puget Sound area, where they will provide electricity for about 100,000 homes in Washington state.

"As this plant ramps up to full capacity, we feel very good about the future of wind in the U.S. and this plant, given the demand and the backlog we already have," Spiegel said.

Gov. Mark Parkinson couldn’t be there but addressed the crowd via videotaped statement projected on a big screen.

"Kansas has an opportunity to become a leader in the new green economy, and our future has never looked brighter," he said.

Local officials are betting on it, hoping that the Siemens plant not only grows but also becomes a magnet for attracting suppliers of parts for the Siemens turbines and related industries.

"Our experience is that as wind industry continues to grow and this plant continues to grow, that more of the supply chain will locate in and around this area," Spiegel said.

Brownback echoed that, saying, "I think it will make other wind manufacturing facilities think that if Siemens went to Kansas, we should look at it as well.

That’s what we want, to have our foot in the door with wind manufacturing facilities."

Officials from Siemens and the local community passed praise back and forth for bringing the company to Hutchinson.

One key player, Hutchinson/Reno County Chamber of Commerce President Dave Kerr, said they thought it was difficult at the time but in retrospect less so because everyone did whatever they were asked.

"It was a massive and it was a coordinated effort," he said. "Everybody did what they were asked and did it well. From our local government to our state’s chief executive, everybody did their part."

The grand opening of the plant also produced a degree of political harmony rare in these times.

Brownback, a Republican, praised the work of the Democrat Parkinson and his administration.

"I applaud the Parkinson administration on all the work they have done to date," Brownback said. "And we’re going to follow your lead, and we’re going to build this on forward with many more plants like this."

Brownback said his objective as governor would be to expand wind energy production and manufacturing in the state with the aid of a modest renewable energy standard, more transmission lines to carry power from wind farms to urban areas and assistance for training the workforce necessary to build and maintain wind turbines.

After listening to Brownback, Spiegel joked that it looked like Siemens would be expanding its plant soon.

By Ken Stephens, The Hutchinson News,

By AWEA CEO Denise Bode,