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New venture bets on market upswing -- Big blade manufacture in America

A Wisconsin company with extensive experience in industrial fibreglass says the time is ripe to get into blade manufacture for multi-megawatt scale wind turbines in North America. Energy Composites Corporation (ECC) plans to break ground in Wisconsin Rapids on a 32,000-square-metre plant by July, hire 400 employees, and begin producing blades up to 75 metres long by next year's first quarter, reaching 1500 units a year by 2011.

If the venture, called WindFiber, stays on course, ECC expects to turn out high volume in less space than is typical and with fewer employees than would normally be required, all by using the company's experience in related composite manufacturing. Its current facility in Wisconsin Rapids builds complex composite structures and vessels for the petrochemical, mining, paper and other industries. A plant of the size planned would normally turn out 1000 to 1100 blades a year, says ECC's Sam Fairchild. "Ours will produce 1500."

Fairchild, a former CEO at wind farm services company Broadwind Energy, says the key to ECC's plan includes a new approach to blade making. It begins with the standard vacuum fibreglass deposition process, but Fairchild says proprietary methods result in more efficiency by reducing labour intensive rework to rectify imperfections. "Because of the way that blades would flow through the plant, it substantially increases the sales per square foot," Fairchild says. "In our other areas of composite fabrication we experience the same difference and it works extremely well. We're actually quite confident in our ability to have a much higher throughput out of our plant."

Although no WindFiber blades have yet been attached to a wind turbine, the company's prototypes are undergoing independent testing. "Our prototypes are in pretty good shape and testing protocol should be completed by fall," Fairchild says. "Hopefully our blades will be in production exactly when everyone projects this market to return in a very robust way."

Fairchild is equally confident in ECC's ability to secure enough credit to get the plant built, along with a $625,000 loan for new equipment. Talks are also ongoing with a local college to establish a training program.

ECC plans to sell blades throughout the US. Its facility will allow blades to be loaded directly onto railcars and the Mississippi River is not far away for barge transport in addition to trucking. The company already provides field service crews nationwide for wind energy composites maintenance, repair and overhaul. Fairchild says WindFiber will ultimately be expanded to roll out a variety of other services aimed at the wind sector.

A note of caution comes from Matthew Kaplan of consultancy Emerging Energy Research. "ECC's plans are quite aggressive given that several [wind turbine] manufacturers are increasingly looking to produce blades in house, while many third party suppliers have been aggressively ramping up their own market presence," he says.

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