With a volatile oil market and gas prices ping-ponging up and down, even politicians who never saw an oil rig they didn’t love are beginning to see the light, and it’s called energy independence. Our oil-patch president, George W. Bush, has talked about a future where wind power might supply 20 percent of the nation’s energy needs. Julius Steiner estimates that for wind energy to reach that 20 percent benchmark here, we’d need 75,000 new turbines. “The U.S. market is going to be huge,” he says.
As a young man, Steiner promoted rock concerts, so he knows something about the zeitgeist. In wind, he sees something going on beyond sheer economic frenzy. “Wind energy is hot and sexy right now,” he says. “If you look at ads on TV or in print from companies that want to portray themselves as being hip and cool, a lot of them are using wind turbines to symbolize their forward thinking, how hip and cool they are.”
Somehow, Philadelphia has established itself as a player in this emerging — and, yes, possibly even sexy and hip — commodity market. We’ll never be at the center of actual wind energy production — that’s going to be in the wide-open midsection of the country, the great swath stretching from North Dakota to Texas that industry folk waggishly refer to as the potential Saudi Arabia of wind. But Philadelphia has an attractive quality that Fargo doesn’t: a much shorter flight to Europe, where most of today’s top wind companies are based.
Gamesa, based in Victoria, Spain, has established a 60-worker U.S. corporate office on South Broad (later this year, those employees will move to larger digs once occupied by Sunoco, in Penn Center), with a smaller office in Trevose. Another major Spanish player is Iberdrola Renewables, which buys turbines (including some from Gamesa), groups them into “wind farms,” then sells the resulting electricity. The Radnor company moved onto the Main Line in 2006 after buying Community Energy, a renewable energy marketer and small wind-farm operator founded there in 1999 by a lawyer named Brent Alderfer.
“It’s happenstance,” Alderfer tells me when I ask him why our region has suddenly gotten so, well, windy. “It just happened that some of the people driving the industry were here. It’s possible that Philadelphia could grow into a real center for this business, kind of like what happened years ago with pharmaceuticals.”