Interest in wind picks up

It's not often a city gets a chance to land a whole new industrial cluster.

It's that possibility that produced grins and laughter among those who had returned from the largest wind energy show in the world in Germany last week.

That group included Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, and representatives from the state, Wichita State University, the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition and private industry.

Their biggest coup: a European wind energy trade group said it is interested in bringing a large delegation to Kansas next year.

The visit would entail setting aside hundreds of hotel rooms and producing a virtual tour of Kansas using high-tech maps showing wind speeds, high-voltage lines, highways, railroad tracks and population centers.

"So they can see where they can fit into the picture and where they would like to be," Brewer said.

These companies are Europe's major turbine makers and their suppliers. As the number of wind farms in the U.S. develops, the much-larger European wind energy industry is slowly expanding into the U.S. They are searching for sites to build and suppliers to manufacture.

Both would be very good news for Wichita.

"It's pretty exciting," said Patty Koehler," president of J.R. Custom Metal Products, who traveled to Germany and who already supplies the industry.

Marlin Penner of real estate firm John T. Arnold Associates, who also went, said the trip might encourage a few suppliers of Siemens to move to the area.

Or, he said, it might mean a major new manufacturing cluster of the subcontractors for Siemens and the other turbine makers who have recently built in nearby states.

"We think we've got a shot at that," Penner said.

Wichita, he said, has several built-in advantages: it sits in the second windiest state in the nation, behind Texas, and the eventual home of many wind farms; it already possesses abundant labor and machinery for a similar industry; it sits in the middle of the country, making it convenient for shipping; and, it already has the Siemens plant nearby.

Debra Teufel, managing director for the coalition, acknowledged that Kansas has to compete hard for those manufacturers. Nearby states sent delegations to the conference and some manufacturers are eyeing China as their next move.

One of the last key pieces to spark a large move to the U.S., Teufel said, is passing a national electricity standard, a requirement that a certain percentage of electricity come from sources such as wind.

A bill to require that 15 percent of electricity come from renewable sources by 2021 was introduced last week in the U.S. Senate. The bill was co-sponsored by Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback.

Momentum for wind is building, Koehler said.

She said she has heard of two European manufacturers who will visit the area in the next couple of weeks to search for suppliers.

"They are working quickly because Siemens needs their parts... Their first units will come off the line starting in December."