The Market Power Of Wind Power

A distributor’s experience on the front line of the competitive energy industry

Wind TurbineDue in part to the nation’s overdependence on foreign oil and its unpredictable price spikes and erratic supply levels, the United States is showing renewed interest in alternative sources of energy. Solar, hydro, geothermal and wind power are but some examples of renewable energy receiving considerable attention—and investment.

Wind power is of particular interest to the gases and welding industry because of the business it is already generating. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “recognition of the value of wind energy as a low cost, clean source for electricity is creating major new business opportunities for manufacturing and materials innovation.” The American Wind Energy Association reports that in 2008 alone, wind generation in the United States grew by 50 percent, channeling $17 billion into the U.S. economy.

A primary means by which wind is converted to electricity is wind turbines—those massive, three-bladed “propellers” perched atop tall cylindrical steel towers that are popping up on hillsides throughout the country. These wind energy systems transform the kinetic energy of the wind into electrical energy that can be tapped for practical use, generating electricity for homes and businesses and for sale to utilities.

At a time when steel demand has declined because the need for certain end-marketproducts—automotive, home appliances, commercial and residential construction, agriculture equipment, etc.—has decreased, demand for steel is on the upswing in other sectors, including the energy industry, in such applications as the fabrication of wind turbine towers.

Manufacturing wind towers is no small feat. First, massive slabs of steel are cut to size on enormous plasma cutting tables. The steel plates, which are up to 10 feet wide and anywhere from 1/2 in. to 2 1/2 in. thick, are beveled and rolled into a series of tapering “cans” requiring longitudinal and cylindrical seam welding using the submerged arc welding process. Other welding processes are employed as well.

Because the conical towers can be as much as 250 feet tall or more, to make them manageable for shipping they are fabricated and shipped in sections. Flanges are welded to the ends of the sections so they can be bolted together on-site. Finally, the turbine, which is manufactured at another facility, is mounted on the top of the assembled tower.

Among the GAWDA distributors on the frontline of the energy industry is Ron Fogle, the Tulsa, Oklahoma, area manager for Lampton Welding Supply Company, Inc. (Wichita, KS). “This market is probably 60 to 70 percent energy-related,” Fogle says. “Lots of our customers build products and components such as compressors, pumps, drilling rigs and heat exchangers for the oil, natural gas and ethanol industries.”

This article is the second in a Welding & Gases Today series: Harnessing the Future: A look at industry trends and innovations for new growth. The first appeared in the Summer 2008 issue. Read it online at www.WeldingAndGasesToday.org.

One of the newer arrivals to Fogle’s “energy hub” is a 500,000 sq. ft. facility that produces steel towers for wind turbines. “They began operating in the Tulsa area about a year-and-a-half ago,” Fogle says. “It was a startup operation: We provided bulk gases, bulk installation, assists with every kind of piping and welding equipment, along with processes and procedures. There was a lot of very specialized equipment involved.”

Because this was an expansion operation for an existing tower manufacturing facility in another state, much of the new equipment was spec’d and laid out beforehand, Fogle explains. “Initially, we provided equipment, industrial gases, bulk gases and general startup assistance. Now we sell them welding and industrial supplies and provide technical support.”

Landing the Contract
The relationship between Lampton and the tower fabricator didn’t just happen; it resulted from the resourcefulness and sales savvy of Tulsa-based Lampton field engineer Jim Baldridge.

TOP 10 WIND POWER STATES
  1. Texas
  2. Iowa
  3. California
  4. Minnesota
  5. Washington
  6. Colorado
  7. Oregon
  8. Illinois
  9. New York
  10. Kansas
Source: American Wind
Energy Association

Baldridge first learned of the facility expansion from an unlikely source: a media Web site called Newsmax.com. “Newsmax gives you all kinds of details about different companies,” he says. “That’s how I found out the company was putting a place in either Oklahoma or Nebraska. When they decided it would be Catoosa, a Tulsa suburb, I got in touch with them right away.”

Long before the land was purchased, a building was completed or a single employee was hired, Baldridge had established a solid relationship with the facility’s director of operations. “The very first time he came to Tulsa, we sat down and I told him exactly what we could do for him,” he says. “I was there every time he flew into town, walking through the plant with him, listening to his plans and advising him on what needed to be done. During one of these tours, he said he looked at my quote and didn’t need to talk with anyone else. We had a contract signed with them before anyone else in Tulsa even knew they were here.”

Renewable energy promises to be big business for years to come. Says Fogle: “If there’s a market out there for these types of products, which there obviously is, then that’s what we ought to be pursuing and building.”

(The Lincoln Electric Company contributed some of the technical information in this story.)

Gases and Welding Distributors Association