Windy City (that’d be Manistee)

Gray and gusty, just how the Windspire vertical wind turbine likes it.

This is the fourth installment in a series of blogs about the entrepreneurial mettle that Manistee is relying on to move forward in Michigan’s changing economy.

Sometimes, when a company has to work its way out of a jam, it pays to just do the obvious thing. For John Holcomb, general manager at the MasTech Manufacturing plant in Manistee, that meant keeping his factory open and people employed by tapping into all the talk he was hearing about the expanding market for wind power. Holcomb knew his plant and people could make precision products out of metal, and he knew there was more demand for wind turbines than current manufacturers could provide.

He encouraged local leaders to keep an eye out for wind opportunities, and things started to happen. Somebody heard that a company called Mariah Power, of Reno, Nevada, was launching a product called Windspire, a 30-foot-tall vertical wind turbine sized for home installation, and even better, Mariah Power was reportedly looking for a Midwest factory willing to build the machines.

One thing led to another and in December 2008, Mariah Power and MasTech announced their partnership. On a recent blustery day in Manistee, I stopped by to get a tour of the MasTech plant. Outside, a Windspire was spinning smooth and quiet in the stiff westerly wind. Quiet, by the way, is a key feature of the Windspire, since it is being targeted at homeowners who don’t want a clattering wind machine out their kitchen window (and neither do their neighbors).

At 1.2kW capacity, and in a site averaging 10 m.p.h. wind speed, the Windspire can cover about 25 percent of an average American home’s power needs. But Americans, as we’ve heard so many times by now, are kind of power hungry. The same machine can cover 57 percent of an average European home’s energy footprint, Holcomb says. And that means good economic things for Manistee: a large percentage of sales are going overseas already, and the global potential is huge. When is the last time you heard about a Michigan plant rapidly expanding because of manufacturing exports? “We had 2,000 orders before the first one rolled off the line,” Holcomb says. Many of them were destined for places like France, Israel, Japan, and other points farflung. With U.S. tax incentives now in effect, even Americans could see a payback on the machine in about four years, Holcomb says.

For the families of Manistee, Holcomb’s astute pursuit of an industry of the future has already translated into 116 jobs. He expects the plant to double that payroll number within the next couple of years. Part of the plan includes expanding the product line to include a larger turbine that would produce enough energy to equal all of an American home’s energy needs.

One of Holcomb’s main missions is to source as many parts for the Windspire from within as small a geographic locale as possible. “By using local suppliers, we were able to reduce the cost of production by 65 percent, which is equal to or better than what it would cost to do this in China,” he says. That’s another thing you probably haven’t heard in a while from a Michigan manufacturer.

Jeff Smith is editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.

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