Despite Struggles, Arkansas Wind Industry Far From Blowing Away

by Luke Jones  on Monday, Jul. 15, 2013 12:00 am  

Grant Tennille

Historically, Arkansas’ position in the wind energy industry has been in a manufacturing capacity.

“The fact is, the hardest thing to do in America is create new U.S. manufacturing jobs,” said Peter Kelley, vice president for public affairs at the American Wind Energy Association. “And still, wind energy has succeeded in doing that.”

Manufacturers in the state — besides Nordex USA, which announced last month the shuttering of its production facility at Jonesboro — include LM Wind Power in Little Rock, which builds turbine blades; Beckmann Volmer North America LP in Osceola, which produces fabricated steel parts for the industry; and O’Neal Steel and PPG in Little Rock.

Some of those companies have struggled as well. LM Wind Power laid off more than 200 workers in August, and Beckmann Volmer has sought out new customers outside of wind to make up for the unstable market.

The list also at one point included Mitsubishi, which in 2010 announced it would build a $2.2 million turbine facility in Fort Smith. The building was constructed, but the company later pulled out of the project, partially because of patent issues with General Electric.

“But secondarily, the market began to suffer,” said Grant Tennille, executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. Mitsubishi has “not sold it, and I suppose that there’s still some chance they’ll look at it and say the time is right.”

Beyond manufacturing, the state also has “significant wind resource,” Kelley said.

“The potential is for Arkansas to be in the top 15 manufacturing states, and meanwhile, to generate over 50 percent of all the state’s current electrical demands,” he said. “According to the National Renewable Energy Lab, Arkansas could provide 58 percent of the state’s electricity from wind.”

At the end of 2012, Kelley said, Arkansas had about 210 megawatts of wind projects queued, and the state could generate a potential 9,200 megawatts.

Those estimates were made when turbines were constructed at 80 meters in height, Kelley said. Now, they’re typically 100 meters high, which will increase efficiency.

However, development in this area, for both Arkansas and elsewhere, has traditionally been met by opposition from parties that either aren’t convinced that wind power is necessary or think that it would impinge on another source of energy.

“We’ve got various states adopting different renewable portfolio standards,” Tennille said. “But there are lots of states, Arkansas being one, that have done nothing in that capacity. A lot of that is political. We’ve got states that generate a huge amount of coal energy for whom this is an enormous issue. A lot of their GDP is generated in coal mines. And lots and lots of jobs follow them. And they work hard to try and ensure that coal remains the leader.”

There’s no agreement, Tennille said, and it doesn’t help that no renewable source of energy can currently compete with coal.

“Layered on top of that is the explosion — no pun intended — of new natural gas as a result of fracking technology,” he said. “That has driven the price down to an all-time low, and has made natural gas a viable competitor to coal. In a lot of ways that’s good for Arkansas.”

He said that despite’s Nordex’s closure, other projects are still moving forward in the state, and even Nordex hasn’t departed entirely.

“They will continue to have a presence in northeast Arkansas between sales and service and the very successful school they run up there training people from all over the country to do maintenance and upkeep work on wind turbines,” Tennille said. “We’re hopeful that at some point, the shift takes place that allows them to feel comfortable going back into production over here. But I don’t know when that will be.”



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