Auto Plant Harnesses Wind Power to Breathe New Life, Jobs Into Community

Auto Plant Harnesses Wind Power to Breathe New Life, Jobs Into Community

Someone once said that America's system of free enterprise was so strong "not because it stands still, frozen in the past, but because it has always adapted to changing realities." That someone, ironically, was Lee Iacocca, former chairman of Chrysler Corp., which recently exited its second bankruptcy.

Automakers have fueled the economy of the upper Midwest for more than 100 years. But with the Big Three foundering, hundreds of steel and automotive plants sit idle, with one exception, in Manistee, Mich., where an automotive plant that once made parts for Chrysler and other auto companies now turns out wind turbines.

VIDEO: Michigan auto plant switches gears to harness wind power for turbines.

As it became clear that automakers were going to cut costs fast, things took a dark turn.

"We went from 30 people down to five," factory manager John Holcomb told ABC News. "It's very scary ... particularly when you've been doing it for 30 years like I have and then suddenly you see it just die."

But Holcomb, along with the factory owner, MasTech Manufacturing, didn't quit and close shop. To stay in business, they adapted, turned away from the production of automotive parts and focused on the cutting edge of the green economy: harnessing power from wind.

MasTech and Holcomb hooked up with Mariah Power, a Reno-based company that produces wind turbines, which eventually became the factory's new occupant.

"John Holcomb convinced me that he knew how to make it [wind turbines]," said Mike Hess, CEO of Mariah Power. "He could process the steel and aluminum better than anyone I knew to date and that he could compete on a world basis ... on a cost basis."

In April, the factory's robotic welders -- originally built for the car industry -- went to work assembling masts for Mariah Power's Windspires, the company's patented wind turbines.

"We took what was a four-hour job, and we do it in two minutes," Holcomb said.

Not only were the robots retrained, but Holcomb rehired many of the workers he had to fire, bringing life back to a hard-hit community.

Workers Rehired to Weld Wind Turbines

"There's a lot of similarities with the car company work," said quality manager Randy Brown. "We're assembling things, we're welding things, we're machining."

"I'm feeding 40 families and that's what makes me the proudest," Holcomb said. "... Every Friday, I have 40 people [who] want my autograph."

The small manufacturing plant has plans to employ as many as 120 workers, giving other factories hope that similar conversions will breathe new life into their operations.

"This is a small thing in the scope of the world," Holcomb noted. "Another 120 jobs doesn't begin to offset the losses that Michigan has had. But it's a seed of hope. ... It's a seed of hope that there's a brighter future ahead."

Mariah Power envisions bringing alternative energy and wind power to the masses. For $8,000, homeowners can invest in a wind turbine that generates electricity in their backyards.

"The vision for this is, we wanted something that was low cost and affordable for renewable energy. So we're gonna take this, drive the cost down, drive the pricing down so the average person can afford to be in renewable energy and then we're gonna take this to the rest of the world," Hess said.

"We shipped the first hundred units this month," Hess told ABC News' Terry Moran in May. "You know, that's about $600,000 worth of sales. Next month, it's a million two."

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