United States

United States

Tower outposts springing up

While towers are a highly visible wind turbine component, their technological sex appeal is limited. But representing about 15% of the total cost of a turbine, they provide cost variables that can shave real dollars off a developer's bottom line. "In almost every case it costs more to manufacture towers in the US because of labour and steel," says Mark Goodwin of Houston's Horizon Wind Energy. "But it's also expensive to ship towers on ocean vessels and then get them across land to where the projects are. So we're keen on suppliers that can lower our costs."

Goodwin estimates that in today's market, US towers end up being the better deal for domestic projects roughly half of the time. Horizon, which was bought in March by Energías de Portugal (page 29), is among the companies that thrive in economies of scale. Tower makers that produce quality and quantity while hitting production deadlines are primed to thrive as the US market continues to boom.

While only a small handful of North American tower manufacturers existed only a few years ago, roughly a dozen do business today. Since some maintain multiple facilities, upwards of 16 manufacturing outposts are now in operation between Mexico City and Canada. The number is certain to grow. "It's easier to ramp up in towers than in blades or gears or bearings," says Josh Magee of Emerging Energy Research. "And if turbine vendors can find tower suppliers close to their projects they save money."

DMI Industries, Trinity Structural Towers and Tower Tech Systems have long led the US market, while Marmen and Hitachi are the Canadian mainstays, says Magee. DMI recently embarked on an expansion to its wind tower manufacturing facility in Fort Erie, Ontario, that will squeeze out an additional 30% more capacity and accommodate larger tower sections. With nearly $2 million in state start up funds, Trinity will also increase its manufacturing by opening a new facility in Illinois.

The new wave of players has meant more competition. One recent entry into the US market is Ameron, a long-time Southern California pipe-making company that invested $22 million to retrofit a plant for wind towers. "We've been building pipe for one hundred years, so it's been fairly easy for us to do," says Ameron's Steve Steingraeber. "When you paint these things, you've got to rotate them and you need something that can rotate 60 or 70 tons. It's also got to be dust free. It's kind of a science project, really. It's very much an exercise in material handling, efficiencies and the consolidation process." Ameron aims to produce 200 towers of at least 80 meters this year and expects to reach full capacity by July.

"We'd like to get to a level of 350 towers a year or more," says Steingraeber, who says the company works with Gamesa, Clipper and Mitsubishi, and has worked with Vestas. Ameron is currently sending its towers to projects in Texas but the plant should be roaring by the time California's massive wave of Tehachapi-area projects kick into gear. Since blades can be easily damaged on ships, Steingraeber predicts that blade manufacturing will continue to migrate towards US shores. And because of their size, towers will too. Otherwise he expects the global wind market to be content shipping turbines and other components across oceans to assembly plants in America.

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