Moving his company across the Delaware River was a breeze for Eric Schwartz.
The CEO of Windkits and his team needed to quickly find a new location in 2011 after his firm's European parent company announced it was spinning the division off.
There were plenty of options. The company looked in a 100-mile arc around its Bergen County, N.J., location, searching in places like New York state and Connecticut.
But they found that Pennsylvania, and in particular the Lehigh Valley, had the best combination of trained workers, access to distribution corridors, reasonable cost of living and lifestyle amenities.
The company, which employs about 20 people making a key component of the windmills used in turbines that help supply clean energy to the nation's electrical grid, moved to Upper
It employs a range of workers, from automated-machine operators and band-saw operators to machine maintenance and production-line workers.
"Here, because the Valley was so well established as an industrial center, if you need welders, a machine shop, pallets, anything an industry needs, you have it," Schwartz said.
The company made a point of switching to local suppliers wherever possible, said Kevin Wolf, director of operations. And the region had plenty of professionals like accountants and attorneys who could help with financial and legal matters.
The Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce has been a great help with networking, Wolf said. It's generally a very friendly business community.
"We know more people in the Valley in two years than we knew in New Jersey in eight years," he said.
Windkits' management also liked the cultural and lifestyle amenities offered in the Lehigh Valley, said Jarett Witt, regional development manager at Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. And the region had the transportation network needed to serve its customers.
LVEDC connected Windkits with the Governor's Action Team for some redevelopment financing and PPL stepped in to upgrade the power supply to the building. The company wanted evidence that locating in the Valley made business sense.
"That was absolutely very important for Eric and his team there: Quality of life, a place to raise a family and for the business to be viable too," Witt said.
At the time, there were close to a dozen suitable properties, Witt said. But today, there are probably half as many 30,000-square-foot-plus industrial locations with 24-foot clearance that he could show to a prospective buyer in the Lehigh Valley.
Windkits makes "flexible puzzle pieces" that fit together to make up the blades of the massive wind turbines that line windy hilltops, giving them structure and flexibility. They're light enough to turn fast enough to generate electricity, but strong enough to sustain the force of the winds.
"These blades are built like an airplane wing," Schwartz said. "It is a big, hollow structure. But if you look inside the structure, it is many layers of fiberglass cloth and lightweight stiffening materials such as balsa wood and foam."
Schwartz has been a strong advocate for federal wind energy credits, which help make the cost of generating wind energy competitive with cheaper, less sustainable forms of energy such as coal.
"The production tax credit has driven significant growth in domestic wind energy manufacturing and helps the United States to maintain our competitiveness in the global clean energy market," he wrote in a letter to the editor in The Morning Call last year.
On that front, the last couple of years have proven bumpy.
The credit, which has a great effect on Windkits' business, looked to be in jeopardy in the summer when it got caught up in an election dispute between President
With the presidential candidates at odds, Congressional leaders shelved efforts to extend the credit.
That caused a slowdown in orders for Windkits and other wind energy companies because large windmill manufactures like the Spanish Gamesa, which has a location in
Wind industry leaders pushed for the 2.2-cent-per-kilowatt-hour tax credit to be extended in the fall or after the election. Overall, U.S. taxpayers spent $1.4 billion on renewable energy tax credits in 2011, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
An extension was granted through the end of this year, at an estimated cost of $12.1 billion over the next decade.
With the credit extended, Schwartz said he expects business to pick up in the second half of this year. With wind energy, planning and financing comes first, equipment orders follow.
"If we get additional business beyond where we are now, we are going to hire people because we are staffed for the current demand," said Schwartz.
The factory is only running one shift of workers, but orders are picking up and some overtime shifts are being added. If the pace picks up, the factory could add another shift of up to 15 workers Wolf said.
When wind projects were really booming prior to the recession, the company had three full shifts in New Jersey.
The American Wind Energy Association said the extension should restart the process of setting up deals with electricity providers to purchase wind power, raising capital to build wind installations and reactivate the supply chain to provide parts and construction.
"While development activity, including starting construction, for projects in 2013 and beyond was halted due to the uncertainty around the [tax credit] — now with clarity in place, the development activity will be reactivated and projects can move toward starting construction," the group said in a prepared statement.
Congress tweaked the law in the extension to make it better for wind energy developers by allowing the credits to apply to projects started in 2013. The previous version of the credit required projects to be completed by the end of the year, creating a mad rush to finish installations as each year came to an end, Schwartz said.
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