Wind turbine maker plants firm foot in state

| Sunday, June 7, 2009

EBENSBURG -- Larry Stupi worked as a banker for 32 years, holding a number of positions, the last one as a commercial lending officer.

Three years ago, the Johnstown, Cambria County, resident, looking for a new challenge, went from making loans to making windmill blades.

"My boss gives me what I need to do for the day, then lets me do it," said Stupi, 56. "It's less money than I was making, but also a lot less pressure -- it's super."

Stupi is one of 300 employees at a windmill blade factory operated in Ebensburg by Spain's Gamesa SA, one of the world's five largest windmill turbine makers. Its primary competitors include GE Energy, Denmark's Vestas, Germany's Siemens and India's Suzlon.

Three years ago, Gamesa opened this 142,000-square-foot plant in Cambria County as part of its entry to both Pennsylvania and the United States.

The move gave the company a leg up on competitors in a wind-energy market that experts predicted a decade ago would take off.

President Obama's backing for alternative energy projects and billions of dollars of incentives in a stimulus package passed by Congress has positioned Gamesa and others to capitalize on expanding demand for electricity generated by the wind.

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources is considering legislation that would require the country to generate 11 to 15 percent of its power from renewable resources, including wind and solar, by 2021. The House is weighing similar legislation. And Obama has called for an even more ambitious goal: 25 percent by 2025. A federal standard, combined with grants and tax credits in the government stimulus package, could help draw billions of dollars in investments and spur plans for new wind farms nationwide.

"Wind companies see a strong market for renewable energy in the U.S., and we agree," said Robert LaCount, head of the Climate Change and Clean Energy Group for IHS CERA, Washington.

"Of the 14 original equipment manufacturers in the North American market today, nearly everyone followed Gamesa," said Matt Kaplan, senior analyst in Emerging Energy Research's North America Wind Energy Group, in Cambridge, Mass. "Gamesa was ahead of the curve."

"It was a smart move on Gamesa's part to come to the U.S., replicating what it learned to do well in Europe, and they are in a very good position," said Gerry Susman, director of Penn State University's Center for the Management of Technological and Organizational Change.

Gamesa's Ebensburg plant is expanding to handle larger blades as the wind-energy industry moves toward larger, more powerful windmills.

It is consolidating all blade work from another blade-making plant in Fairless Hills, Bucks County. That plant will concentrate on making nacelles, which house the turbines turned by the wind-driven giant blades to generate electricity. Gamesa's North American headquarters and a sales office are in Philadelphia.

Ebensburg Plant Manager Antonio Morente Manero projects his workers this year will produce about 400 blades, down from more than 500 in 2008, because of the production changes.

Last year was the best year ever for the wind industry in America.

More than 8,500 megawatts of wind power were brought online, increasing the nation's total wind-generating capacity to 25,300 megawatts, overtaking Germany for the top position worldwide. That's enough electricity to handle the needs of nearly seven million households. Even so, that's still a tiny part of the energy grid -- just over 1 percent of the U.S. electricity supply.

An estimated $17 billion was invested in wind power in 2008 alone, with IHS CERA projecting 2009 projects will add another 5,000 megawatts to 8,500 megawatts to the wind power capacity total.

Michael Peck, Gamesa's director of media, institutional and labor relations, said a company task force looked initially at 27 states, and in 2004 selected Pennsylvania for its operations.

"We received bipartisan support to come to Pennsylvania, and the state had just passed a standard calling for 18 percent of the state's energy to come from renewables by 2020," he said.

The state provided Gamesa with $20 million in grants and loans to build its manufacturing plants in Ebensburg and in Fairless Hills outside Philadelphia. The Ebensburg plant is tax-exempt until 2011, the Fairless Hills facility pays no state and local taxes through 2019.

Gamesa was attracted by Western Pennsylvania's fabled work force. "Workers in Ebensburg, an extension of the Pittsburgh area, have manufacturing in their blood," Peck said.

"It's been a very positive experience having Gamesa here," said P.J. Stevens, president of the Cambria County commissioners. "It brought family-sustaining jobs here, which helps grow our tax base. That's the kind of job creation we want."

Wages at the Gamesa plant, excluding benefits, range between $12.73 and $18.39 an hour.

"The biggest thing for us having Gamesa is that it establishes us in the renewables community," said Linda Thomson, president of Johnstown Area Regional Industries, a nonprofit economic development agency that promotes Cambria and Somerset counties.

Standing on the Ebensburg plant's roof, 100 of the 150-foot, six-ton blades lie end-to-end, looking like wind-made ridges in white sand. Each blade, three blades per windmill, takes 22 hours to manufacture, said manufacturing manager Joe Satkovich.

Satkovich is another worker who found a home with Gamesa. A 32-year veteran with Vanity Fair Intimates, he lost his job as operations superintendent when the company decided to close its Richland, Cambria County, factory and move operations to Alabama.

Satkovich joined Gamesa in August 2005, spent 4 12 months in Spain learning the Gamesa way, then returned to Ebensburg to direct operations on the shop floor.

"We make two blades a day, and can work on 10 blades at one time, on three shifts," Satkovich said. The blades are made of fiberglass impregnated with resins, plus carbon fiber that adds strength without weight.

Blades have to be nearly perfect when they leave the Gamesa factory. Ultrasound equipment is used to ensure each blade is solid throughout, and the three blades that are mounted on top of a windmill tower have to weigh within 11 pounds of each other to prevent wobbling, improper wear and expensive fixes.

Ongoing retooling at the Ebensburg plant is expected to be completed by year's end.

"We have to prepare for the future in the wind industry, and we're getting ready for new products in the Gamesa portfolio," Manero said.

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