We’ve got the power

Region’s advanced manufacturing assets play key role in energy industry

Posted on Feb 1, 2017 :: Sustainability/Energy
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

It’s true that oil derricks and coal mines don’t dot the Northeast Wisconsin landscape, but that doesn’t mean that the region isn’t a player in the energy industry.

On the contrary, what the area lacks in natural resources, it makes up for with advanced manufacturing facilities that contribute to the industry and strong higher learning institutions.

Lee Swindall, vice president of sector strategy development for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., expects strong, perhaps even disproportionate, growth in the energy-power-control sector in the New North.

“Advanced manufacturing is a key competitive advantage,” says Swindall, noting that the New North is home to 22 EPC companies with nearly 2,000 employees.

With 900 companies statewide, employing more than 100,000 people, the energy sector is critical to Wisconsin, Swindall says. The $38 billion industry has experienced strong growth for the past 12 years, even during the recession. It represents one of the strongest exports in the state.

“It’s in power and controls where we have a superior competitive advantage,” Swindall says.

Power encompasses transmission, distribution, monitoring, efficiency and quality, while controls covers industrial automation, building automation, energy management, SMART grid/distributed energy resource systems, wind and solar control, according to the WEDC.

WEDC works with the Milwaukee-based Midwest Energy Research Consortium to help promote and further the industry. The organization, which started in 2009, now includes eight states and works to leverage strengths, attract talent and deploy new products to further the sector.

EPC is among the three largest industries in the state, along with water and food and beverage, says Alan Perlstein, M-WERC’s executive director and CEO. “We are to EPC what the West Coast is to technology with Silicon Valley.”

Perlstein says Wisconsin offers many assets, including some of the nation’s most capable and reliable public utilities in WE Energies and American Transmission Co. “We have great technology, a very strong OEM space and a deep supply chain.”

With its Wisconsin Wind Works, a consortium of almost 300 suppliers and manufacturers working to meet domestic and global wind power supply chain needs, New North Inc. has taken the lead in promoting wind energy, Perlstein says.

Wind tower manufacturer Broadwind Energies, headquartered in Illinois with operations in Manitowoc, works to foster energy industry independence in America, says Joni Konstantelos, the company’s director of investor relations and corporate communications.

“We’re really trying to make our mark and help contribute to the expansion of clean energy,” Konstantelos says.

With the average price of wind power down by 66 percent in the last five years, the industry is growing, says Konstantelos. “It is the fastest, cheapest way to reduce carbon pollution today.

Konstantelos says both corporations and mainstream America have embraced and grown more excited about the benefits of wind energy.

The wind belt is in the center corridor of the country, says Konstantelos, making Manitowoc an ideal place for the company’s Broadwind Towers operations. In addition, it offers deep water port access, skilled laborers and a long history of high-quality industrial manufacturing, Konstantelos says.

Manitowoc’s Orion Energy Systems came through difficult times to become a leader in the LED lighting industry. When the company shifted its focus from old technology to LED lighting, it was forced to gut and rebuild its business, says CEO John Scribante. “We emerged out of that transition, and today we’re very strong and robust.”

The company, which has annual revenues of $70 million to $80 million, maintained its commitment to manufacturing in the United States, and that gave it a competitive advantage, Scribante says.

Today the company makes the highest-performing LED industrial light fixture in the world, and Scribante projects growth in digital lighting technology. This allows companies to tackle business problems involving facility management.

The key to energy efficiency, Scribante says, is to know that it costs less to save a kilowatt of power than to generate a kilowatt of power, and that’s the role Orion plays.

Waukesha-based generator manufacturer Generac began in a barn in the late 1950s and has grown to become a global company with 4,500 employees and $1.5 billion in revenues. Aaron Jagdfeld, Generac’s CEO and president, praises the company’s facilities in Berlin and Oshkosh. “We love the workforces in these small towns.”

The Berlin facility manufactures mobile lighting and mobile generators, while the one in Oshkosh makes large, industrial generators for mission-critical facilities like hospitals and IT centers. “That operation is doing very well for us,” says Jagdfeld. “We’re very happy to continue to invest.”

While Jagdfeld is pleased with the quality of the workforce, his company has grappled with a labor shortage for the past five years. “Finding good skilled employees is challenging,” he says.

His company is working to dispel stereotypes and promote manufacturing as a clean, safe, high-tech environment.

With five programs in the energy field, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College is at the forefront when it comes to educating the next generation of workers. The college’s electrical power distribution and gas utility construction graduates are a sought-after commodity.

“The demand for people with these skills is incredible,” says Amy Kox, NWTC’s associate dean of energy and sustainability.

It’s easy to see why both nine-month technical diploma programs typically have a wait list, with graduates poised to earn upward of $50,000 a year. Graduates can expect to leave the state, Kox says, but many return eventually, bringing back the skills they’ve learned.

The school, which has received two grants from the National Science Foundation, also offers associate’s degrees in utility engineering technology, energy management and solar energy. Thanks to a successful referendum, by 2018 all of the programs will be housed in one energy-efficient building.

“We really think that here at NWTC, with our unique combination of programs, we’re positioned to be a leader,” Kox says.

That’s great news to M-WERC’s Perlstein, who says innovation is the key to finding clean, sustainable energy. “Doing that smartly and doing that well is where we have that advantage.”