Business is booming at this wind power factory

I’m on the road again this week to visit the people who work in and live with wind energy every day, hearing their stories about the ways wind makes a positive impact. After previous stops in Colorado, New York and Ohio, this time I’m trekking across Wisconsin.

My first stop was Gearbox Express in Mukwonago, a town of about 15,000 just southwest of Milwaukee. Gearbox Express is one of the more than 500 U.S. factories that build wind-related parts and materials.

I’ve often heard that small businesses are the backbone of the U.S. economy, and if you want to know how healthy the economy really is, see how they’re doing.

This one is booming.

Gearbox Express refurbishes wind turbine gearboxes. You may wonder what those are. Wind turbine blades generally spin at a rate of 20 revolutions per minute (RPM), and that needs to be sped up in order to generate electricity. That’s what the gearbox does, ramping things up to about 1,800 RPMs. So they play a critical role.

Like your car, a natural gas turbine, or any other machine with moving parts, wear, tear and breakdowns are inevitable. That’s where Gearbox Express comes in. They can quickly and efficiently repair and upgrade worn out gearboxes and get them back out into the field. That shortens the amount of time a turbine may be down and lowers operations and maintenance costs. And with 52,000-and counting-wind turbines across the U.S., there is a lot of potential business out there.

CEO Bruce Neumiller told me he and the company’s other founders identified a market without its needs being met, so they decided to start Gearbox Express. And his hypothesis looks like it was proven correct. Gearbox Express grew out of its first space in just three years, and last spring it opened a new 80,000 square foot factory. Bruce estimated business is growing by 30 to 50 percent a year, and noted that Gearbox has already pumped between $18 and 20 million into Wisconsin’s economy.

Bruce explained that plenty of other unexplored business opportunities remain within the wind industry– innovators just need to find them. And he said the maturation of the aftermarket space is one of the reasons the cost of wind power will continue to decline. The more efficiently companies can run operations and maintenance, the cheaper the product.

Starting Gearbox Express also created an entirely new set of jobs, and today it employs over 30 people. Bruce told me many are millennials, attracted to Gearbox’s good wages, benefits and close knit culture. On Fridays before heading home, they often gather for a beer at one of the two varieties Gearbox keeps on tap. This being Wisconsin, they partnered with a local brewery to create Wind Turbine Ale and Gearbox Amber.

Gearbox’s employees come from a variety of backgrounds. One employee, Justin Mantes, told me he used to work on motorcycle gearboxes, but lost his job when the company went out of business. He was happy to get a position at Gearbox Express, where a number of employees went to the same motorcycle technical school he did. Justin said working on motorcycle gearboxes and those for wind turbines isn’t so different– one just weighs a few dozen pounds and the other 35,000.

Ultimately, Bruce expects business to keep growing in the years ahead.

“I’m no tree-hugger,” he said. “But if it’s renewable, cost-effective and makes money, why wouldn’t you do it?”


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