The Great Lakes Renewable Energy Assocation, the organizers of the 2009 Michigan Wind Energy Conference at Cobo Center, say attendance well exceeded expectations of 700 during the opening day Tuesday.

Wind energy is in its infancy in Michigan, but one speaker after another has highlighted the state's manufacturing and engineering expertise and its potential for producing wind energy — much of it along the shores of the Great Lakes or in the lakes themselves — as key assets. Part of the problem may be manufacturers' lack of familiarity with the wind industry.

The severity of the economic downturn and increasing focus on renewable energy have Michigan's manufacturing industry hungry to get in on the fast-growing industry, if attendance at a wind energy conference in Detroit today is any indication.

The state now has more than 35 manufacturers that supply some product or service to wind energy industry. "That's quickly growing," said Dan Radomski, who works with manufacturers for NextEnergy, a Detroit-based nonprofit.

There is lots of vertical integration going on, Radomski said, where turbine makers are producing their own components. But that is due largely to a lack of a developed U.S. supply chain.

As the mostly European-based wind turbine OEMs open U.S. operations, they are increasingly looking for local suppliers to help them minimize the high costs of shipping what are often large components, such as blades or towers.

"The directive we have in my group is to look for localized content 100 percent. So sourcing America for America," said Gene Cuenot, nacelle supply chain manager for Danish company Vestas, the world's largest wind turbine maker.

An estimated half of attendees were representatives of manufacturing firms, based on a show of hands during a morning session. Some of the people I've spoken with said they were looking for new markets to offset a deep slump in automotive and other industries that they serve.

One representative of a Jackson-area manufacturer told me his company has shut down for two weeks. Business, he said, is "Not good," despite being diversified into other industries despite automotive.

Nevertheless, 2008 was best year ever for the U.S. wind industry, and President Barack Obama is "clealy commited" to growing green jobs and developing renewable energies, said Jim Walker, president of the American Wind Energy Association.

Wind was 42 percent of all power capacity installed in the U.S., more than any other form of power generation. The industry added 35,000 jobs during the year, raising the total to 85,000, and more than 70 new manufacturing plants devoted to wind went online.

"We took a giant step forward last year, unfortunately we're going to take a few steps backward" as the economy crashed and the availability of financing for large wind projects contracted, Walker said.

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