ATLANTA – The governors of Kansas and Arkansas, a Missouri utility commissioner and a Texas legislator are among the speakers at the world’s largest convention for the industry of wind-generated electricity being held in Atlanta this week, but the host state has little presence.
“I want to encourage all the potential investment out to my state, and spend as much money and employ as many people as you possibly can,” said Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe. “We will help you in any way that we know how.”
More than twice as many Texas companies as Georgia ones are among the exhibitors in the two massive trade halls. Most the of Peach State firms are longtime power-industry suppliers trying to offer their existing wares to the budding wind industry. For example, Southwire of Carrollton, Ga., is a major producer of electric cables, and Southern States of Hampton has a long track record making electrical switches.
However, Georgia has a handful of dedicated wind producers, like ZF Windpower of Gainesville that makes turbine gearboxes, but it’s a subsidiary of a German company.
One reason wind-industry manufacturers have been more likely to locate in the Midwest is that the turbine blades are so huge that companies try to make them close to their customers to minimize transportation costs. Wind farms, mile after mile of giant turbines linked together, have traditionally been limited to the flat states because experts thought the trees and hills in the East limited their potential.
Industry officials here at the convention say that’s changing with new technology, longer blades and 30 percent greater efficiency than five years ago.
“The truth is wind power is a natural fit in the South,” said Denise Bode, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association that is sponsoring the 12,000-attendee convention.
Beebe said he, too, originally thought of his state as just a place for manufacturing the turbines but not for installation.
“For a long time I operated under the mistaken belief – which probably wasn’t too mistaken at the time – that our contribution to the wind industry in our state was relatively limited to manufacturing and the production of those component parts,” he said.
New technology has changed that.
“Areas of the country that we thought were marginal with regards to wind-energy production now become economically viable,” he said.
Last year, neighboring Alabama’s Public Service Commission granted Alabama Power authority to make its first wind-power contract. The company is a subsidiary of Atlanta-based Southern Co. that owns Georgia Power. Monday, Southern Co. received national recognition for expanding its nuclear power capability in Georgia.
Wind-industry insiders say their sector’s rapid growth since the recession and 30,000 manufacturing jobs could all come to a halt if Congress fails to extend a federal tax break, production tax credits.
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Beebe called opponents “unAmerican.”
“Anyone standing in the way of this industry, frankly, they’re unAmerican,” he said.
The industry is seeking a five-year extension. It is set to expire at the end of this year.
Industry officials note that the production tax credits have bipartisan support. Democrats like Beebe and President Barack Obama favor them as well as Republicans like Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, who also addressed the convention and called for renewal of the tax credits but with a four-year phase out that other supporters oppose.
Both governors are at least partly motivated by the number of jobs in their states with companies that manufacture wind-turbine components. There are an estimated 30,000 wind-manufacturing jobs in the United States. Just 90 of the nation’s 500 companies are located in Atlanta’s region, Bode said.
Both states are also seeing more electricity generated with wind, which is becoming a draw for other factory jobs from consumer-products companies. For example, Mars Chocolate North America is building a new plant to make M&M candies in Kansas so it can tell its customers it is powered completely by environmentally friendly wind.
Brownback said, “In addition to wheat and cattle, I want Kansas to become known as the Renewable State.”
Beebe described wind power as vital to energy independence which would free U.S. foreign policy from having to be focused on oil and natural gas imports from countries “who don’t like us.”
Congress hasn’t passed any tax legislation this year, largely over budget concerns. A repeat of last year’s bloody debt-ceiling debate is coming early next year.
Before then, House and Senate leaders are struggling to prevent large spending cuts set to trigger automatically in December as the result of the failed Super Committee negotiations. Those cuts are politically unpopular because they include Medicare and the Pentagon. “It’s a difficult political environment,” Brownback said of his conversations with former congressional colleagues. “It’s a very difficult financial environment.”