May 7, 2009 at 3:32 pm

Wind turbines generate Michigan job hopes

A vertical axis wind turbine called a Windspire rotates in Copemish. The 30-foot-tall generators are virtually silent. (John L. Russell Special to The Detroit News)

Manistee --Not long ago, MasTech Manufacturing's future looked bleak.

The latest auto industry downturn had nearly halted production on the factory floor. The plant, which made high-tech machinery for car and truck plants, was limping by with only five workers. And parts orders were drying up.

But today, the cavernous, two-story factory is ramping up production of another sort, churning out wind turbines to meet a fast-growing demand for this renewable power source. MasTech has restored its workforce to more than 40 employees -- hiring many former auto workers -- with plans to grow as the firm seeks to meet a 2,500-unit back order.

"If we didn't have these wind turbines," said John Holcomb, the plant's manager, "we wouldn't be here talking today. The doors would be closed."

The small factory in Manistee, a former industrial stronghold on the shores of Lake Michigan that once served as a hub for salt mining and lumber mills, is helping usher in a new, greener era for Michigan manufacturing, one state officials hope will transform the Great Lakes State into a hub for milling parts for the nation's growing number of wind farms.

Manistee, too, is pinning its hopes on this new manufacturing to boost the fortunes of this 6,500-resident city, where signs of the recession are visible in the vacant storefronts on its main street. Many small auto parts suppliers in the area have shed workers, causing the job loss to trickle to other industries.

"Around here, it's survival mode," said Chris Dittmer, 25, an intern at MasTech who grew up in nearby Ludington.

About 1 percent of the nation's energy is generated from wind power, but federal officials are pushing to make it a larger part of the U.S. electricity grid, with one report targeting 20 percent wind power by 2030.

Michigan utilities also are turning up the juice on wind power to comply with new state renewable energy requirements and spending big on wind turbines and farms.

But the state's efforts to diversify the wind market are tinged with challenges. Michigan has a well-established industrial base, but it's far from a leader in turbine manufacturing and faces stiff competition from other states.

While turbine-part manufacturing will generate badly-needed jobs -- one federal report identifies Michigan as one of four states that could create up to 30,000 new jobs by 2030 -- it will barely dent the void left by the state's contracting auto industry, which has scrubbed about 500,000 jobs since 2000.

And some analysts say the government's job creation estimates are optimistic, at best.

Michigan lags other states

In the last three years, more than 35 firms in Michigan have sprung up or retooled their factories to supply parts to the commercial wind industry.

Some 400 other Michigan manufacturers have the capability to craft gear boxes, brakes, generators and other parts for utility-size wind turbines -- colossal 400-foot structures with blades larger than a jumbo jet's wingspan and selling for $2 million a piece, says NextEnergy, a renewable energy development group in Detroit.

Those figures don't include smaller manufacturers, like MasTech, that makes components for lower-watt turbines for homes and small businesses.

"We've just scratched the surface," said Dan Radomski, vice president of industry services for NextEnergy, which is working to link Michigan auto suppliers with wind turbine original equipment manufacturers or OEMs.

Still, Michigan lags other states in landing key assembly contracts to build tower and blade plants, analysts say.

Much of that business has already gone to states like Colorado and Iowa that saw the opportunities in wind energy early on and were aggressive about courting global wind manufacturers when they were looking to ratchet up production in the U.S.

"That doesn't mean (Michigan) is completely out of the game, but it's playing a bit of catch up with other states," said Josh Magee, a wind energy director at Emerging Energy Research in Cambridge, Mass.

And because Michigan doesn't require utilities to buy turbines from in-state manufacturers, he said, "that business is going to flow to whatever state can do it most efficiently and most inexpensively with good quality."

Auto background a strength

The nation's deepening economic troubles present another stumbling block. Many planned wind farms have stalled due to the global credit crunch, and industry growth has slowed dramatically since early 2008. Dowding Machining, an auto supplier-turned- turbine parts manufacturer in Eaton Rapids, has trimmed its workforce by about 100 employees this year, despite having opened a new plant in August to mill turbine parts -- hubs, transmissions and bases -- for Clipper Windpower, a British turbine maker, said Jeff Metts, company president.

Still, Michigan's manufacturing expertise -- culled from nearly a century of precision parts for cars and trucks -- makes it a strong contender for capturing a large share of the wind energy business once it rebounds, industry observers say.

Because turbines are costly to ship from abroad, many of the 8,000 precision components will be made in the U.S. "Our objective is to capture as much of that opportunity as we can," said Stanley Pruss, director of the Michigan Department for Energy, Labor and Economic Growth.

State leaders are offering grants and tax incentives to attract wind energy investment to Michigan -- an effort that appears to be working to some extent.

Global Wind Systems, a final assembly plant for delivery-ready commercial wind turbines, will ramp up production this year in Novi after receiving $7.3 million in tax credits and plans to hire 250 workers by the year's end.

Additionally, Gov. Jennifer Granholm traveled to the nation's largest wind energy conference this week in Chicago to tout Michigan's "world-class workforce and manufacturing expertise."

Wind industry more secure

At MasTech, the arrival of new manufacturing work in an emerging industry sector was a welcome change from a steady stream of dour economic news. The county's unemployment rate hit 13.7 percent in February, up from 9.7 percent the same month a year ago.

"All of a sudden, we started to see companies with 10 to 30 workers close their doors," said Allan O'Shea, chairman of the county's board of commissioners. "What they were was way too dependent on the auto industry."

But inside the MasTech plant, where workers crisscrossed the floor hauling hulking steel columns, this grim employment picture seemed to fade.

For Adam Morris, 36, the wind industry offered better job security than his previous employer, a tool and die company and supplier to Detroit's Big Three. Morris was hired at MasTech about four months ago as a machinist, a gig that came with a slight pay cut but a more reliable future.

"I got sick and tired of looking over my shoulder," Morris said. "You never know when they're going to stop the line of cars, when they're going to run out of money to build them."

The plant, which used to derive most of its work from the auto industry, now counts it as less than 5 percent, said Holcomb, who sports a bushy white mustache and has an office full of trophies from tractor pulls.

Several years ago, MasTech lured the business from Ohio to make 1.2 kilowatt wind turbines for Reno, Nevada-based Mariah Power by outbidding on price and "leveraging our manufacturing expertise," Holcomb said.

That foresight appears to now be paying off.

"Right now, this is a godsend in actually being able to hire instead of lay people off," he said.

Wind turbine replicas are on display at the Windpower 2009 Conference & ... (M. Spencer Green / Associated Press)
Jesse Trivisonn welds at the Manistee manufacturing plant, where the ... (John L. Russell Special to The Detroit News)