Siemens unveils Hutch's new wind turbine plant

12/04/2010 12:00 AM

12/04/2010 3:34 AM

The new Siemens wind turbine nacelle plant in Hutchinson gleamed like a new car at Friday's official unveiling, with bright lights shining down from a four-story-tall ceiling and fresh paint on all the fixtures and hoists.

The 300,000-square-foot plant now employs 130 people, a number expected to climb to 400 within about a year.

The company invited several hundred people to tour the plant, hear speeches and see the unveiling of the first nacelle, which eventually will be put on a rail car and shipped to Puget Sound Energy's Lower Snake River Wind Project in Washington.

A nacelle, which weighs 185,000 pounds, consists of an enormous generator, axle and gears housed in one unit sitting hundreds of feet in the air. The blades are made at a Siemens plant in Fort Madison, Iowa.

Just getting the plant open was an achievement, said Eric Spiegel, president of Siemens USA, who was at the ceremony.

"We had nothing on this floor 59 days ago," he said. "Our plant people from Germany and the Netherlands and Denmark said this is amazing."

State and local officials in Hutchinson worked like crazy to woo Siemens last year, providing millions of dollars worth of incentives to land the plant in the hopes that it will anchor a new industrial cluster.

Spiegel said that's likely. One company, Draka, a Dutch maker of wire and cable, already has said it will set up operations in Hutchinson.

"As demand picks up, you will see more and more of our supply chain moving here," he said. "They know that is the way to make themselves more competitive."

But, Spiegel added, the economic impact in the long term depends on the growth of the industry. And that, he said, depends on a rebound in electricity demand, which is tied to the economy, plus a renewal of a federal tax credit and a minimum alternative energy requirement for utilities called a renewable electricity standard.

That, and Kansas' underdeveloped potential, central location and trained manufacturing labor force, will be a magnet, he said.

However, Spiegel cautioned, China is starting to make large investments in wind energy technology.

"The obvious plan as they improve their quality and lower their costs is that they are going to be looking at exporting those things to places like the U.S.," Spiegel said. "That is why it is so important that we make the investment in these technologies now, so that we don't end up importing better technology from outside."

Gov.-elect Sam Brownback, also on hand for the ceremony, said it is critical that Kansas keep pushing wind development, even with a tight state budget.

"It's tough in light of a difficult budget," he said, "but as I've said throughout the campaign, we've got to grow."

He said it is likely Congress would renew production tax credits. He said he also likes the chances of a "modest" renewable energy requirement.

"If it's modest, and if it includes oil and gas, nuclear and offshore. An energy package is the only way to get the votes — and it has to be modest. We cannot raise people's utility rates."

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