United States

United States

Bigger is better - ECC puts its money on supersize turbines

US: Betting on a future of bigger turbines and offshore wind development in the Great Lakes, Energy Composites Corporation (ECC) is ratcheting up plans for a factory with yearly output of 2,200 blades up to 65 metres in length.

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The publicly traded Wisconsin company plans to break ground this spring on its 160,000-square-metre plant, then hire upwards of 600 employees to work nine production lines beginning in the first quarter of next year. A year ago, ECC had announced plans for a relatively modest factory to begin making smaller blades early this year.

"We scrapped an entire design of a plant and started from scratch in order to be able to deliver a plant that could build 65-metre blades for the United States," says company CEO Sam Fairchild. "We paused when the market paused and it made good sense to do that. We could have gotten the necessary credit, but it would have been very expensive credit."

Now ECC will combine $27 million in equity and $45 million of debt from the federal government's Recovery Zone Bond Authority to build its plant on 40 hectares in Wisconsin Rapids, where the company is already headquartered and manufactures complex composite structures. "By taking our time and working with the city of Wisconsin Rapids, we got a very favourable deal on the land itself," Fairchild says. "That's for both the plant and a logistics centre."

The logistics centre will allow ECC to stage so-called unit trains. "A unit train has roughly 100 cars that are for one dedicated purpose - going from your plant to the wind farm," Fairchild says. "Transport costs are probably 30% or 35% higher by rail if you're not on a unit train."

In an effort to control quality and cost, ECC will make blades from its own materials. "We will formulate our own rosins and weave our own fabric," Fairchild says, noting that the company is well on its way to locking up its first pair of customers. Although the factory will be designed for 65-metre blades, ECC will also build blades for today's typical blades sizes as well -- around 40 metres in length.

ECC's push into wind draws experience from other wind firms. Fairchild is a former CEO at US wind industry component and services company Broadwind Energy and ECC draws wind blade experience from Adrian Williams, who led the development of the Swiss firm Gurit's wind blade materials business before leaving in 2007.

ECC is also negotiating a deal that involves licensing a new process for de-icing wind blades. "We're at the very last exchange of documents with the company that owns the technology," Fairchild says.

Meanwhile, ECC is wagering that offshore wind projects will soon be developed in the Great Lakes - a bet bolstered by recent reports that Vestas is interested in supplying up to 740 turbines for four Lake Ontario developments planned by Toronto-based Trillium Power Wind.

"The economics of offshore in the Great Lakes are dramatically more favourable than offshore in the ocean," Fairchild says. "Your proximity to the demand for electricity is dramatically closer. We don't have a problem with a vista, because about 40% of the Great Lakes shoreline is industrial."

Overall, Fairchild says that the interest in the Trillium project by Vestas, along with GE Energy's plans to introduce its 2.5MW turbine into the North American market, validates ECC's ambitious strategy that hinges on a trend towards larger turbines.

"I think we're the only company capable of building 65-metre blades in the United States and it'll be hard for others to catch up," Fairchild says. "You can't just take any existing plant and start redesigning it to get it to build 65-metre blades. They'd have to start from scratch. So we think we've got a time advantage on the rest of the market."















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