Wind and Solar Energy Where are the Opportunities for Metalformers?

By: Brad Kuvin

Saturday, August 1, 2009
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Wind and solar energy
Shepherd Advisors was formed in 2000 to help private-company clients increase sales, margins and market share in clean-technology industries. Its team helps companies enter the clean-tech markets; find partners to increase access to distribution, manufacturing and suppliers; and to locate funding for research and development.

We recently asked Shepherd Advisors’ president Loch McCabe to share his views on the opportunities that metalformers —particularly those with close ties to the automotive industry—have to link into the supply chain for the wind-energy and concentrated-solar-power industries.

MF: We know that the recession, particularly the drying up of credit, has hit the alternative-energy industry pretty hard. Is the alternative-energy industry still an attractive target?

McCabe: It’s true that some large projects have been put on hold, but growth of the alternative-energy space has been and will continue to be very strong. In the wind and solar industries, leaders predict that 2010 will be a record year. Increasingly favorable federal policies, a wealth of new incentives, and volatile, rising energy costs make most watchers of this industry quite bullish.

MF: What are some of the emerging alternative-energy products and segments that auto-parts manufacturers/metalforming companies should be looking at?

McCabe: As oil prices reach $70-plus per barrel again, the drive to improve vehicle fuel efficiency only gets stronger. Drive-train electrification and further light-weighting will continue to gather steam. We expect to see a growing innovation premium for products and processes that achieve weight reductions without sacrificing performance.

Energy efficiency in industrial applications means more energy-efficient pumps, compressors, waste-heat recovery equipment, and the like. Part of the beauty—and the challenge—of the energy-efficiency market is that it comprises a multitude of companies and products—energy-efficient materials, lighting, HVAC, controls, etc.

MF: Discuss the growth of the large-wind industry.

McCabe: Last year, more new turbines were installed in the Untied States and across the world than ever before. In 2008 alone, nearly 27,000 MW of new wind-turbine capacity was installed globally, of which more than 8500 MW were installed in the United States. Today, the world has nearly 121,000 MW of wind-turbine capacity, installed mostly in Europe, the United States, China and India. At the end of last year, the United States edged long-time leader Germany for the lead in total wind-energy capacity installed, with more than 25,000 MW.

The global wind market last year grew to $48 billion, 28 percent growth over 2007, and the U.S. wind market expanded to $12 billion. Yet, the U.S. wind industry is poised for even more impressive growth over the next 20 years. The U.S. Department of Energy has set the goal of providing 20 percent of the country’s electrical-power needs by 2030 from wind power. To do this, more than 300,000 MW of capacity will be required, requiring a massive expansion of U.S. installations. The wires are already being strung, with $11 billion of new federal stimulus funding aimed at expanding the transmission grid into the Great Plains and elsewhere.

To learn more, visit the website of the American Wind Energy Association at 

MF: What challenges do metalformers and other suppliers face as they look to get into the large-wind industry?

McCabe: Wind turbines include generators, bearings, drive shafts and controls that are somewhat similar to comparable parts of vehicle drive trains. Yet, many suppliers find the transition from auto parts to wind-turbine parts daunting. Some of the challenges they face include:

• Large part sizes—Wind turbines, quite simply, are big. Think of a locomotive on a tower 300 ft. high, driving power from spinning blades as wide as a 747 jetliner. The nacelle itself can weigh more than 100 tons, and the tower another 75 tons, and they are nearly all steel and other metal alloys. And, these assemblies must last in the field for 20 yr. or more.

Map shows large-wind capacity
Map shows large-wind capacity (in MW) installed as of March 31, 2009. Source: American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).

According to Matt Garran, director of technical services for the Great Lakes Wind Network (, wind-turbine parts largely fall into two categories, those above 6000 lb. and those less than 600 lb. As Garran describes, main shafts in the nacelle can range from 4 to 20 tons, hubs can weigh 5 to 15 tons, and main frames can approach 30 ft. long. Not surprisingly, suppliers of these large parts typically also cast, forge, machine and fabricate heavy-duty large-scale parts for the construction and mining industries.

(Gamesa Corp., a Spanish wind-turbine OEM, presents a great introduction to wind-turbine manufacturing on its website: (

• European roots. The wind industry is a global market led by Europeans. In 2007, roughly 80 percent of the large wind-turbine market was served by six OEMs: global leader Vestas (Denmark), GE Energy (U.S.), Gamesa (Spain), Enercon (Germany), Suzlon (India) and Siemens (Germany). The designs and standards are predominantly European, completed in the metric system. Even U.S. manufacturers GE Energy and Clipper Windpower use the metric system throughout their designs. European OEMs use European specifications for materials, parts and tolerance dimensions, coatings, couplings, and the like.

Some OEMs have begun to consider using standard specs for U.S. production of noncritical parts, but they have a strong European bias. And, the OEMs already have well-established Tier One and Tier Two suppliers in Europe that provide exactly to spec. U.S. companies, particularly those not currently doing business in Europe with European companies, are disadvantaged.

• Low-volume high-margin business model. While the parts can be large, volumes can be modest. Typical full-scale supply contracts will be in the hundreds per year. This often presents a challenge to auto-parts manufacturers, and often requires suppliers to change their priorities, business model and structure.

• Rigorous quality, durability and delivery standards. Large wind turbines must operate under very challenging conditions for 20-plus years. Failures of bearings, gearboxes, control systems or hydraulics, for example, can take a turbine out of commission and be extremely costly to repair. Thus, quality control of parts and the manufacturing processes are of paramount importance to OEMs.

Says Garran, “Think aerospace. An excellent quality track record, high internal quality monitoring and controlled processes, and ISO 9001 certification are usually minimum requirements.”

What's in a wind turbine?
Major wind-turbine installations include the rotor, nacelle, frame, and tower, and their subsystems. Illustration courtesy of
OEMs also place a premium on absolutely reliable and on-time delivery. OEMs usually face stiff penalties from wind-project developers if they are late in delivering, installing and commissioning turbines. Thus, they impose strict delivery schedules on suppliers, and will pass penalties on to suppliers at fault.

• Global competition. The large-wind industry is a well-established global industry, pitting U.S. manufacturers against veteran companies, many of which have been in the business for decades. OEMs are building U.S.-based supply chains to serve the large and growing U.S. market, yet U.S. firms go head-to-head with established suppliers that already have economies of scale.

MF: What are some of the major metal-alloy components of a wind turbine, and how can U.S. metalformers leverage their resources to enter the supply chain?

McCabe: Metal components make up more than a third of the value of a wind turbine and almost 90 percent of its weight. Many of these components are castings, forgings and fabrications that are machined, heattreated, stress-relieved and coated to prevent corrosion. The main shaft and gear blanks are hammer- or press-formed. Bearing rings and tower flanges are rolled as seamless rings. Wind
turbines also feature several subsystems, including fluid systems for cooling, lubrication and hydraulic power, yaw and blade-pitch systems and electronic control systems.

Precise machining, turning, milling, welding, coating, drilling, boring, finishing and testing are usually needed to convert large castings into main components. To produce the large components, one must have tools that can accommodate their size and weight, and machine them with great precision. Also required are the cranes and other material-handling equipment to handle these large loads.

The towers, of course, represent a major component, and are made of steel and/or concrete. Standard tower designs call for precisely rolled 2-in. plates, and use large flanges and bolts to connect tower sections. Interestingly, some lattice tower designs also are being used. Tower sections are long, large, and heavy, so OEMs also are looking at proximity to market and rail transportation to reduce costs. Tower sections are preassembled with ladders, elevators, wiring harnesses, etc.

To withstand the force of the wind and long-term exposure to the environment, high-performance ductile iron grades are used for a majority of wind-turbine parts. Typically the alloys are modified for lower silicon and phosphorus levels.

The AWEA metalworking factsheet ( offers additional relevant background.

In addition to the large parts described here, large wind systems also comprise thousands of smaller parts that offer opportunities for contract machine shops, fabricators, fastener makers and integrators.

One final comment: Though there is plenty of room for innovation in manufacturing design and processes in the large-wind industry, OEMs mostly are not interested, at least up front. Turbine designs must be certified to obtain insurance, and the testing process can run one to two years on a new turbine design. When it comes to innovation, OEMs are pretty risk-adverse, as are wind-project developers and financiers.


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Related Enterprise Zones: Fabrication, Materials/Coatings, Other Processes, Tool & Die

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