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

Facing new economic realities, automotive plants harness power from wind.

June 17, 2009, 8:46 AM

June 17, 2009— -- 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.

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."

While no one yet knows if Windspires will be cost-effective or practical enough to rival the electricity produced by America's existing power plants, Holcomb and Hess -- two men with a vision and impenetrable spirit -- believe that, like Henry Ford's Model T, you need to start somewhere if you want to go anywhere at all.

"You've got to be willing to say, 'We have this technology, let's change it, let's adapt it, let's do something new with it," Holcomb told ABC News.

Cotton Capital of the South Converts with Changing Times

In these tough times, reinvention is not limited to Manistee; as the industries that have driven America's economy since the early 1900s wither, flexibility and innovation are taking hold in the Mississippi Delta among cotton farmers.

Cotton -- the proverbial "cash crop" -- has supplied the South with much of its wealth and prosperity since before the Civil War. And Greenwood, Miss., once known as the cotton capital of the world, is losing its luster.

In the recession, the demand for new clothing has plummeted, which has caused the price of u.S. cotton to decline. And many textile mills have moved overseas in the last two decades to such places as China and India, where it's cheaper to grow, pick and process cotton. This has left farmers like Ricky Belk, who has cultivated cotton in the Mississippi Delta for nearly 30 years, with difficult choices.

"I don't think there's any doubt that we can't compete with them on the playing field ... because they're still growing cotton and we aren't," he said.

Turning away from what was his trade, Belk has replaced thousands of acres of cotton fields with corn and soy beans. His cotton farming equipment now stands idle, because recession or not, people are still eating.

Following suit, the Pillow family -- fifth generation cotton farmers -- is not planting any cotton this year.

"Like the car dealerships, if you're not selling the cars, I mean that's kind of where we are. ...The farm has got to be viable and we have to be able to be here the next year for our families," Reese Pillow told ABC News.

"I think everybody wants to grow cotton. You know we're cotton farmers. We're cotton farmers growing corn and beans," said Belk.

For farmers in the South who are adapting to new economic realities, and so too for Holcomb's manufacturing workers in the North, who are harnessing wind power, reinvention and innovation are proving to be signs of strength.

"I challenge every other manufacturer in this country to think the same way. I think if you give our workers the right tools and you give them the right attitude, they'll outwork, out compete anyone on a world market stage."

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