Business: Blowin’ in the Wind

Two major Spanish companies specializing in wind technology have settled here, hoping to cash in on the alternative-energy craze. With a volatile oil market, could Philly become the new … Holland?

THE SEVEN-TON-PLUS fiberglass blade hangs from heavy chains near the giant, coffin-like mold that made it, stretching nearly 150 feet down the factory floor. Workers armed with rotary sanders move in to smooth the blade’s surface, filling the high-ceilinged building with a whiny, ­industrial-insect buzz. Dust motes turn the air into a pale haze.
A tall man in a dark suit steps toward the blade’s tip, which is curved and arched, unexpectedly delicate, like the elegant end of a fin. He points. “That’s where Barack Obama signed his name on one when he was here.”
Julius Steiner, a 61-year-old Philadelphia-bred lawyer (Temple undergrad in communications), is CEO of Gamesa USA, the subsidiary of the Spanish company that is a world leader in manufacturing wind turbines to generate electricity. Four years ago, the Spaniards — whose country was then second in the world in wind energy production — announced that they were ready to discover the New World again. They planted flags here at a former U.S. Steel facility in Fairless Hills, in the gritty area where Bucks County bumps into Trenton, as well as at another manufacturing facility 265 miles west in Cambria County and at a corporate headquarters in Philadelphia.  
This factory produces the blades, the 328-foot-tall steel towers on which they spin, and the RV-size sheds — called “nacelles” — that sit atop the towers and hold the actual power-generating turbines. And after being nearly lifeless for more than a decade, the reborn and retrofitted steel plant served as a perfect backdrop for an Obama campaign stop in March. For what is going on here is, perhaps, a preview of the presidential candidates’ promises to shape a new national energy policy. And the nearly 400 unionized workers (there are about 200 more in western PA) are the real-life embodiment of what is right now a chimerical vision of a country with millions of new, so-called “green collar” jobs, where skilled and well-paid workers make things — actually build things again, in America! — that both push the U.S. toward energy independence and fight global warming.
I ask Julius Steiner where that big blade with Obama’s signature on it is now. Demand is so great that they’re all shipped as soon as the paint dries. “It’s probably already spinning somewhere,” he says.

A STATE-OF-THE-ART wind turbine is a three-bladed giant the size of a 40-story building, yet so sensitive to its invisible fuel that a mere eight-mile-per-hour breeze can set those blades turning and the juice flowing. Under the right conditions, one turbine can generate enough power in a year to run 400 average American homes. Somewhere out there, on a good day, that fin-like fiberglass edge with Barack Obama scrawled on it spins at nearly 200 miles per hour.