New Manufacturer Optimizes for Wind Power

The distinctive bright red siding of a construction crane in the United States is synonymous with the powerful cranes built by the Manitowoc company based in Wisconsin. These are also frequently the type of massive cranes used to erect today’s modern wind turbines. Fitting, then, that the first and only U.S. manufacturer exclusively dedicated to the mass production of wind turbines’ largest support components, would base their new operation in a former Manitowoc shipyard.

Manitowoc, Wisconsin – May 17, 2004 [SolarAccess.com] Betting on a future upsurge in demand for wind power, within the next few months, a new company called Tower Tech Systems Inc. (TTSI) will achieve production capabilities for the automated mass-production of wind tower support structures, turbine assemblies and monopiles. Turbine, (Nacelle) assembly production capabilities are already in place and all brand new manufacturing equipment is expected to be onsite by the end of this June. Wind Power Support Structures Companies that manufacture the turbines tend get all the attention in the wind power industry but the underlying support structures are an integral part of the package. While nearly everything associated with modern, utility-scale wind turbines is large, the wind power industry still a relatively small one in the United States. General Electric now has its own wind power division, but most of the industry’s companies and production capabilities are based in Europe. This is especially the case with the highly complex turbine units. However, the more simple, but massive support structures like towers are prohibitively expensive to transport around the world and are often made closer to the final project site. Despite all the bulk inherent with a completed wind turbine, the wind power industry as a whole is a relatively small one in the U.S. compared the traditional power industries. There simply is not very much heavy industry on the manufacturing side that caters specifically to its needs. Specialized Production According to TTSI, all the current manufacturing facilities for support structures are derived from unrelated, but equally large product manufacturing facilities like those for pressure vessels, tanks or pipelines. The company says this doesn’t allow for the benefits of an optimized system specifically tailored and engineered for the exclusive production of wind towers and other large support structures. TTSI will be relying on the weldment fabrication experience of RBA, Inc., also of Manitowoc, to provide the production workforce necessary to produce the wind tower support structures, turbine assemblies, and monopiles. To give you an idea of the bulk of some of these support structures, the largest units, the monopiles that become the lower base of an offshore wind tower, are between 150 and 180 feet long, and weight as much as 450 tons each. The massive, one-piece units are shipped offshore to a location and progressively flooded until they are positioned vertically and are ready to be driven into the sea-bed. TTSI’s new facility located at a deepwater port of Lake Michigan One of the essential attributes to the new manufacturing facility is its location on a deep water port, with around six-thousand feet of docking space, and access to the Great Lakes and the associated shipping lanes like the St. Lawrence river. Regardless of whether support structures are built at facilities that adapt the equipment from other uses, or are designed specifically for the job — the wind power industry that drives manufacturing is in a legislative limbo right now. Legislative Limbo Just as the federal government helps nurture the fossil fuel industries through numerous tax breaks, subsidies, and lax regulation, the wind power industry has its own enabling federal legislation to help it compete. The Production Tax Credit, (PTC) has been the federal government’s way of supporting wind power development. The measure offers wind power plants a 1.8 cent per kWh tax credit on production. While the credit has consistently garnered strong bi-partisan support in the Congress, it has never been implemented for a long period of time. This has led to an aggravating stop and go process of expiration and reinstatement that has kept the industry from hitting its stride. Uncertainty is market killer and that is exactly where the wind power industry is now – waiting with rapt anticipation for reinstatement of the PTC so they can once again put new projects in the ground. There is legislative movement in the right direction as the Senate just passed the Corporate Tax Bill, in which a number of energy measures including the PTC managed to catch a ride, but it is still a long and difficult process before the bill could become law. The House will have to pass their own version, then the House and Senate will have to agree on, and pass a final version. Few doubt the PTC will be reinstated, it’s just a question of when. “We feel right at the point where the industry will start cresting again,” said Paul Miller, Global Sales and Marketing Director, for TTSI. “We firmly believe the PTC will be put back in place and it could end up being a much longer cycle of activity this time around.” Manufacturing Under Capacity When that happens though, TTSI is betting on a flood of work orders and believes the industry is far below capacity at meeting the demand that has been quelled since the PTC’s expiration this year. As an example of the support structure market’s undercapacity, Miller offered an example using the largest wind power developer in the United States, FPL, and the third largest developer below them. Assuming a market environment with a reinstated PTC, the combined output of TTSI and their four competitors running at full capacity could not supply all the support structures needed for the number three developer in the U.S. TTSI hopes to capitalize on these two major factors: being the first facility devoted specifically to turbine support structures, and being there at the right time to fulfill what could be, an exploding demand. All eyes are on Congress now.

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