Largely due to a fat contract with a major American maker of wind-energy equipment, the fledgling plant is approaching its current production capacity, operating seven days a week and running three shifts.
"We're now faced with some good problems," said Scott Viciana, Ventower vice president. "We're going to build everything we can and going to be really at full capacity this year. I'm very optimistic we are going to continue that pace and probably outpace it and be even busier, hopefully, maybe doubling the amount of towers that are coming out of our plant next year."
The 115,000-square-foot plant was built on reclaimed industrial property near the Port of Monroe and had a ribbon-cutting in August 2011. It's equipped to make cylindrical steel sections of wind towers that can top 200 feet. It shipped its first wind tower sections about a year ago.
The company now has about 65 employees and is running two 10-hour shifts, four days a week, as well as a third weekend shift running 12 hours Fridays through Sundays. It's possible a fourth shift — a weekend night shift — will be added soon.
"I anticipate that by end of summer it will be closer to between 70 and 80 employees easily, with continued hiring farther down the road," Viciana said.
The company has been working with a range of customers but has been concentrating on meeting the needs and specifications of a U.S. firm that needs towers for regional wind farms. Viciana said Ventower now is stockpiling completed tower sections but soon expects to begin shipping them to sites in Michigan or Indiana.
"It's been growing and growing," Viciana said of the business. He said the single largest contract "has allowed us to really hone in on our skills, bring on additional folks and ramp up with a certainty of orders."
Although the company has enough room to expand at its site, it's not contemplating new construction this year, although more equipment is expected to be added to the plant soon.
Viciana said the company is excited to have a production flow that now is taking the plant to capacity after a long startup phase that involved installing equipment, staffing the plant, making prototypes and having its processes certified.
"It's like when the Tigers bring in the home run hitter and he doesn't do anything for the first two months and then all of a sudden he starts crushing them. That's what it feels like," Viciana said.
He said the firm still has some problems fielding qualified workers.
"Recently, we've been able to do a little bit better, but that still is an issue," he said. "Is it something that's limiting us? I wouldn't say so because there is a learning curve — we have equipment that no one has seen. Our track record has been better lately but, unfortunately, it is still an issue."
Although some experts suggest the boom of alternative energy might be fading somewhat due to a rise in natural gas production, Michigan and many other states are mandating energy providers get more of their electric generating capacity from alternative energy. In Michigan, energy companies are expected to get 10 percent of their energy from renewables by 2015 as required by state law and that figure might increase going forward. Wind energy has been the primary source of the new renewable energy in Michigan with 978 megawatts of utility-scale wind projects in operation in Michigan by the end of last year, according to the Michigan Public Service Commission.
DTE Energy is in the process developing its Echo wind project at the tip of Michigan's Thumb area. Expected to be completed by the end of November, it will consist of 70 GE 1.6 megawatt turbines arrayed over nearly 16,000 acres. The project will add about 110 megawatts of renewable energy to DTE's power generation potential.
Michigan ranked eighth in the nation in terms of total investment in wind energy in 2012, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
— By Charles Slat, The Monroe Evening News (AP)