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From auto parts to wind turbines: One company’s clean energy success story

The future of Michigan’s clean energy manufacturing economy thrives in a pair of low-slung buildings in a sand-swept industrial park on Lake Michigan’s shore.

Windspire wind turbines—a first generation of small windmills geared toward individual homes and businesses—are churned out by workers whose auto industry jobs have evaporated.

For Mastech Wind and its workers, the Windspire is a savior. As a direct supplier of tooling for the Big Three automakers, Mastech Manufacturing was crippled. By the end of 2008, its 45-employee workforce had dwindled to fewer than 10. Prospects were bleak.

But Mastech General Manager John Holcomb wasn’t one to assume the proverbial fetal position. A thickly built bear of a man with a booming voice, Holcomb exudes no nonsense practicality. Picture actor Wilford Brimley with Lake Michigan in the background.

Holcomb saw the writing on the wall: “Being the energy pig that I am (he has a pool and a hot tub), I saw this trend two years ago when energy prices were up, and there was this push toward electric cars and trucks. It’s become apparent that if we’re going to handle all these electric cars on the road, we’ve got to be able to generate electricity.

“But I honestly believe coal power plants aren’t the answer anymore. But even if they were, you couldn’t build them fast enough to meet an electric car demand.”

So he beat the bushes to find a clean energy product suited to his company’s unique expertise in toolmaking, robotic weld cells and automated material handling equipment. With the help of Manistee County’s economic development agency he learned that Utah-based Mariah Wind was looking for a manufacturer for its innovative new turbine.

“We put together a group of civic leaders to meet (Mariah Power CEO) Mike Hess, and beat him about the head,” laughed Holcomb. The county lobbied tirelessly, and Gov. Jennifer Granholm made personal phone calls to Hess. A $400,000 Michigan Economic Development Corporation block grant for tooling helped seal the deal. Mastech Wind was created.

Randy Brown is a Mastech worker who was laid off when parts supplier Dura Automotive declared bankruptcy and moved many of its operations to Mexico. He said the work at Mastech is similar to the automotive work he used to do.

“Machining, welding, assembly processes—these things are all typical, we’re just going to be using them on a different type of product,” Brown said. “I’m happy to find something new.”

Mastech’s expertise was just one factor in the decision to locate in Michigan, said Amy Berry, Mariah Power’s corporate communications manager.

“We got a clear understanding that the town, the county, the state…they were all offering full support,” Berry said. Mastech’s costs are “almost on a par with what we could get in China, with what we believe is much better quality.”

Holcomb credits Gov. Granholm, Manistee County leaders and nearby West Shore Community College with forging a team approach to winning over Mariah Power. West Shore, he said, offers important welding certification to Mastech workers. Additionally, a West Shore instructor soon will become one of the state’s first European Union-certified welding inspectors—a key local link in the company’s overseas sales efforts.

This spring, Mastech Wind is turning out 300 Windspire turbines each month and expects to ramp up to 1,000 per month by February of 2010. Its workforce has rebounded to nearly 45, and Holcomb expects to add up to 55 new hires to his Manistee operation and another plant in Sterling Heights within the next nine months.

The company received more than 800 employment applications in the weeks after the Windspire contract was announced.

Holcomb concedes that the Windspire may be a tough sell for Michigan homeowners living in all but the windiest areas of the state. At $6,500 plus installation costs—even with the current 30% federal tax rebate—the Windspire would take more than 20 years to pay for itself at current electric rates.

That’s why many Windspire orders come from Europe, where energy prices are much higher than Michigan.

But Michigan’s electricity rates are certain to rise significantly even under the most optimistic scenario, and the Windspire is expected to become more efficient and less expensive as it matures.

“I’m sure it will become more affordable. But even now it’s priced at the cost of a household appliance and it allows the average homeowners to at least regain some portion of energy independence,” said Holcomb. “I would love to be able to drive my electric car home and plug it into my windmill.

“That day is not far off.”
-Hugh McDiarmid, Jr.
RELATED TOPICS: clean energy, wind power
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