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Pensacola plant harnessing wind

While the Southeast's climate is not conducive to large wind generating farms, other states, like North Dakota, Kansas, Texas and South Dakota, have enormous potential for wind generation. For example, it's estimated that North Dakota's wind resources alone potentially could produce 1.2 trillion megawatts of electricity annually, which is about a third of the current total U.S. output. Although Florida and other Deep South states are not major players in wind generation, the region stands to directly benefit -- as Pensacola has -- from the jobs created as demand for wind generating equipment and devices expands.

For a city with either too little wind or way too much, Pensacola ironically plays a key role in the fast-growing global business of wind energy generation, thanks to GE.

GE Wind Energy's huge assembly plant off Scenic Highway, formerly a Westinghouse manufacturing site for turbines, is one of the world's leading suppliers of 1.5 megawatt generators.

With 197 technicians and 23 administrative personnel, an assembly crew in the cavernous three-shift facility can put together and ship out a bus-sized, 60-ton generator every 40 hours, all under the supervision of plant manager Blair Simmons.

An electrical engineer and 31-year veteran of GE, Simmons arrived in Pensacola six years ago to supervise the $40 million conversion of the plant's infrastructure and hiring of technicians.

And he's been here ever since.

"When the plant opened in 2001, our goal was to assemble one generator in 14 days," Simmons said. "Now we can put one together in five (eight-hour) shifts."

Most of the hundreds of generator units assembled at the plant are transported either by rail or truck to wind farm customers in the United States. Some are shipped to Thailand, Germany and... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

For a city with either too little wind or way too much, Pensacola ironically plays a key role in the fast-growing global business of wind energy generation, thanks to GE.

GE Wind Energy's huge assembly plant off Scenic Highway, formerly a Westinghouse manufacturing site for turbines, is one of the world's leading suppliers of 1.5 megawatt generators.

With 197 technicians and 23 administrative personnel, an assembly crew in the cavernous three-shift facility can put together and ship out a bus-sized, 60-ton generator every 40 hours, all under the supervision of plant manager Blair Simmons.

An electrical engineer and 31-year veteran of GE, Simmons arrived in Pensacola six years ago to supervise the $40 million conversion of the plant's infrastructure and hiring of technicians.

And he's been here ever since.

"When the plant opened in 2001, our goal was to assemble one generator in 14 days," Simmons said. "Now we can put one together in five (eight-hour) shifts."

Most of the hundreds of generator units assembled at the plant are transported either by rail or truck to wind farm customers in the United States. Some are shipped to Thailand, Germany and Spain.

And, as a indication of the favorable working conditions and pay scales at the plant, Tim Burke, GE's Human Resources director in Pensacola, says 80 percent of the skilled technicians hired in 2001 are still employed at the plant.

Simmons, who managed a plant in Monterrey, Mexico, prior to arriving in Pensacola, says that besides employee safety, "the most important part of running this plant is getting the turbines to our customers on time."

Installation of the giant turbines atop 200-foot towers in largely remote areas is very expensive, Simmons says, and customers will not tolerate late arrivals of turbines.

Pensacola's GE plant employees, he added, pride themselves in assembling the complex generators to exact and demanding specifications, and getting the units out the door and to customers on time.

Simmons notes the Pensacola plant is a "zero discharge" facility that hauls all production waste and discharge for off-site disposal.

One of GE's biggest customers is Florida Power and Light Co., despite the fact the state has no operating wind turbines and is not suitable for wind farms because of frequent intense hurricanes.

To benefit from their investment in clean, no-emission wind energy, Florida Power has leased land in Iowa, where annual wind currents are favorable.

The electricity the energy company's generators produce there is transferred back to the state through the national electrical grid, Simmons said.

Although wind energy is still a small but emerging power source, one of its distinct advantages -- unlike coal, fuel oil or natural gas -- is that it's "inflation proof," said Christine Real de Azua, a spokeswoman for the non-profit American Wind Energy Association.

"Wind turbines have high up-front costs, but once installed they have very stable operating costs and have a life expectancy of 20 years or more," said Real de Azua, who described GE as "clearly the leading manufacturer of wind turbines" with more than 60 percent of the U.S. market.

Each 1.5 megawatt generator costs about $2 million to manufacture and install. But once set up and operating each unit can produce enough power from a 20 mph wind to supply the electrical needs of 400 homes.

Most operating wind farms today are located in California, Texas, the Midwest and in many Western states.

Only 1 percent of the U.S. power supply comes from wind generators -- 50 percent from coal -- but the industry is growing fast, and is the second largest source of new energy created in the U.S., according to Real de Azua.

Despite the relatively small amount of the country's power needs supplied by wind, the potential is huge.

The Washington, D.C.-based AWEA estimates the total amount of electricity that could potentially be generated from wind in the U.S. is estimated at 10.7 trillion kilowatts annually -- three times the electricity generated in the country today from all power sources.

While the Southeast's climate is not conducive to large wind generating farms, other states, like North Dakota, Kansas, Texas and South Dakota, have enormous potential for wind generation.

For example, it's estimated that North Dakota's wind resources alone potentially could produce 1.2 trillion megawatts of electricity annually, which is about a third of the current total U.S. output.

Although Florida and other Deep South states are not major players in wind generation, the region stands to directly benefit -- as Pensacola has -- from the jobs created as demand for wind generating equipment and devices expands.

In fact, Simmons says the demand for wind generators is growing so rapidly Pensacola's GE plant could see further expansion of its plant capacity in the future.

"We can expand depending on the supply chain," Simmons said.

Whether generators from Chicago or gear boxes from Finland, getting the parts to the plant on time is the key challenge and obstacle to increasing production capacity, he added. "The logistics have to be impeccable," Simmons said.

Because the GE plant is an assembly operation only, all parts of the thousands of parts -- from the micro chips that run the control board to the massive main frames forged in Opp, Ala., -- are shipped in by rail or truck.

Port of Pensacola officials have been talking to GE officials for months about using the city-owned facility to ship the wind generators. But so far, said Simmons, the Port's role has been limited to providing overflow storage space for the turbines.

Despite the supply-chain difficulties, Pensacola's GE Wind Energy plant is humming 24-hours a day, producing generators by the score, and helping wind energy become a cost-effective, clean and earth-friendly energy source worldwide.

"What we do here in the most fascinating work I've ever done with GE," said Simmons.

CarltonProctor@PensacolaNewsJournal.com


Source: http://www.pensacolanewsjou...

AUG 27 2006
http://www.windaction.org/posts/4202-pensacola-plant-harnessing-wind
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