Yacht Maker Navigates Wind Power Industry After being forced to lay off half its workers, a Michigan yacht-building company has started to make wind turbines. The engineering principles are similar — and now the company is planning to start hiring again.
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Yacht Maker Now Navigating Wind Power Industry

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Yacht Maker Now Navigating Wind Power Industry

Yacht Maker Now Navigating Wind Power Industry

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

The recession has forced many small manufacturers to make new products in order to survive. That's been particularly true throughout the industrial Midwest. Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith has the story of a Michigan yacht maker that's now taking risks in new industries to keep its factory open.

LINDSEY SMITH: Tiara Yachts was operating at full capacity in 2005 and 2006, turning out about 400 yachts per year, with prices ranging around $1 million each. To keep up with demand, the company nearly doubled its manufacturing space in the town of Holland, Michigan. But Tiara Yachts' Steve Busch says the timing could not have been worse.

Mr. STEVEN BUSCH (Human Resource Director, Tiara Yachts): As the whole economy started to suffer both in the Michigan and in the nation and in the world, the Tiara Yachts economy started to suffer as well.

SMITH: The market was hit hard, and Tiara Yachts had to lay off roughly half its workforce.

But now the largest structure inside the newly expanded warehouse is a mold for a 150-foot-long wind turbine blade. The blade mold belongs to Energetx Composites, a new spin-off of Tiara Yachts. Steve Busch says the new company is now making parts for wind turbines.

Mr. BUSCH: Specifically, wind blades and nacelle structures and spinner caps are all made from advanced composites from fiberglass, from laminates, from carbon fibers.

SMITH: Engineers who work with this material are always looking to make it both stronger and lighter. Busch says that's what Tiara Yachts has been doing too.

Mr. BUSCH: We want a strong boat hull, we want a strong deck assembly, and we want to decrease the weight of those, for marine efficiency. So marine engineering and aerospace engineering in that application are very, very similar.

SMITH: But the wind energy industry in the U.S. isn't growing nearly as fast as Tiara Yachts had hoped. Per Krogsgaard has been involved in wind energy for more than three decades. Speaking from Denmark, he says there's a huge market for large-scale wind farms in the U.S., but that market is hard to crack.

Mr. PER KROGSGAARD: Over the years I have been in this industry, we have seen the market in the U.S. as a boom and bust market. It is a very, very bad situation for everybody who are committed to the wind industry.

SMITH: The federal government provides wind energy developers with far fewer tax subsidies than traditional producers like oil and gas. Krogsgaard notes that the wind industry is still relatively new in the U.S. And because there's no national policy, investors had to work through regulations in 36 states, each with their own renewable energy standards.

Krogsgaard says the hardest part of getting into the wind power industry is figuring out how to fit into its super-complicated supply chain.

Mr. KROGSGAARD: But of course everybody who has the willingness to make themselves attractive to the industry, they should try. Of course they should.

SMITH: Energetx Composites has a contract to sell its blades and parts to a wind turbine manufacturer. Now some of the company's workers are adapting from making complicated boats to complicated wind turbine parts.

Ms. NANCY JONES (Tiara Yachts): We need to bake it. We like to get it as warm as we can. And it will cure over that resin.

SMITH: Nancy Jones has been making boats at Tiara Yachts for 32 years.

Ms. JONES: There are a lot of same techniques, but there are a lot of things that are done different. And it is, you know, it's a learning curve. I want to work and I'll work wherever I'm needed.

SMITH: On the yacht side of the business, the market is stabilizing a bit. But on the wind side of the business, the outlook is better: Energetx will have enough work next year to go from about 40 employees to 300.

For NPR News, I'm Lindsey Smith.

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