First Michigan made wind turbine is a biggie

October 30, 2010
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LANSING — A Saginaw company is paving the way to boost Michigan’s role in the wind energy industry.

Within the next two months, Merrill Technologies Group plans to unveil the first Michigan-made wind turbine, a prototype that will be installed in Missaukee County.

Its Northwind 2.2 megawatt turbine uses breakthrough advances in direct drive gearless construction capable of producing enough energy to supply more than 300 homes. According to the company, it is lighter, requires less maintenance and is a more efficient producer of electricity than other technologies.

Although a Vermont company owns the design, the turbine is being assembled in Michigan. The 136,000-ton machine has blades extending 150 feet and will be placed on a tower nearly 300 feet high at the Stoney Corners wind farm in McBain, southeast of Cadillac. It will be used to test the advantages of direct-drive technology in comparison to alternative designs, Merrill said.

The ability to produce the wind machine is a result of Merrill’s diversification, said Nate Jonker, public affairs official for the company. Merrill, which began as a General Motors supplier, has four manufacturing divisions that produce components for a variety of industries.

Jonker said the turbine may serve as a model for Michigan manufacturing in the industry. “We have windmills in Michigan now that were made almost entirely in China,” Jonker said. “Merrill, and others of course, hope to turn that around.”

Merrill’s supply chain for the project provides components from across the state, including Grand Rapids and Lansing. With 8,000 parts in a wind turbine, the project is a collaborative effort, even with Merrill’s competitors, such as Energetx Composites of Holland, Jonker said. Energetx, which recently diversified from the marine industry to produce wind energy components, is building blades for the project.

Another company to contribute to the project is Betz Industries of Grand Rapids.

Limiting production to Michigan companies is a practical step toward using the state’s skilled labor force and meeting the state’s wind turbine demands, which Jonker said is high enough to justify production of “over 2,000 windmills tomorrow.”

The future of the wind energy industry looks bright to many other Michigan manufacturing companies, despite this year’s dismal numbers.

Nationally, the wind industry closed the second quarter of 2010 with 1,239 megawatts of newly installed capacity, nearly 70 percent lower than the level for the same period in 2009, the American Wind Energy Association reported.

John Patten, director of the Manufacturing Research Center at Western Michigan University and creator of a wind manufacturing group in Michigan, described 2010’s slow start as a “minor hiccup.

“We’ll be back on track,” Patten said. “Everybody’s planning for it.”

Despite Michigan’s economic slump, many manufacturing companies predict the industry will experience steady growth due to the U.S. Department of Energy’s analysis that the nation has the potential to meet 20 percent of its energy needs from wind by 2030.

Given the projected demand for wind energy, Jonker said Merrill envisions Michigan becoming the hub for windmill production for the eastern United States. According to Patten, Michigan is an ideal location for supplying that broad geographic area.

“In terms of logistics, there’s a lot of potential for shipping. It’s a good, central location,” Patten said, highlighting that Michigan’s waterways give manufacturers an advantage that other states in the industry lack.

Jonker said he hopes Michigan-made wind machines will eventually have the potential to be sold globally, but estimated that it may take five years until Michigan can produce the thousands of turbines necessary to meet demand.

The project, while it may be a breakthrough for Michigan’s wind turbine manufacturing future, is a costly commitment for Merrill.

“It’s a huge multi-million dollar venture,” Jonker said. “In one plant, we had to replace the floor because the machine’s weight required a new reinforced base.”

Among other expenses, some of Merrill’s new, high-tech machines cost more than $1 million each. To cover some of the costs, Merrill received a $3 million federal Clean Energy Advanced Manufacturing grant. Merrill was one of five companies to receive the grant.

Although such projects require large investments, Michelle Cordano, advocacy specialist for the Michigan Manufacturers Association, said involvement in the wind energy industry will have long-term benefits.

“It’s a new, growing field,” she said. “We know it’s going to be substantial enough for Michigan manufacturers to get involved.”

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