GE's S.C. Plant Shifts Attention
by Jim DuPlessis
GREENVILLE, S.C. -- General Electric's strategy of pursuing environmentally friendly business has given its Greenville site new jobs making wind turbines, softening the blow of layoffs that cut the plant's work force by more than 600 jobs in the past three years.
The site's employment has fluctuated wildly since it opened in 1968 making turbines fired by natural gas. The business took off in the 1980s, subsided, then surged again in the 1990s as utilities sought low-cost ways to keep up with rising demand.
That business crashed in 2001-2002, when the plant's employment peaked at 3,150 workers. GE announced plans in July 2002 to cut up to 1,000 jobs, but it has softened the blow through a series of moves that transferred work to Greenville from other GE locations:
Plant spokesman Mark Reilly said the spending is projected across business lines through 2019, including $4 million spent this year in the gas and wind turbine businesses.
The last major investment announcement at the site was in 2001, when General Electric moved its design headquarters for turbines from New York to Greenville. The company spent $50 million to build a three-story office at the site for design engineers. Several hundred of them moved from Schenectady, Reilly said.
This year's energy business spending includes about $1 million to start building wind turbines in Greenville.
Overall, the plant's energy businesses spend a few million dollars per year on new equipment. The plant has older equipment, which makes its annual depreciation costs low, and profitability higher, said Paul C. Smith, who became the plant's manager last January.
GE expects to make about 1,000 wind turbines this year, including about 300 at the Greenville plant. Demand is expected to be steady through 2007, when a federal tax credit expires. Most are being installed in clusters called "wind farms" in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. GE is testing a model this year that will allow South Carolina and other areas with slower winds to capture wind energy profitably.
The American Wind Energy Association predicts enough wind turbines will be installed this year to provide 2,500 megawatts of electricity -- the equivalent of Duke Energy's nuclear power plant in Oconee County, the state's largest.
Next year's installations will bring total U.S. wind power to 9,200 megawatts, enough to power at least 2.5 million homes or meet half of South Carolina's demand on the hottest day of summer.
GE expects its wind business to generate $3 billion in sales next year.
But power is produced in small gusts. Each GE turbine can only meet 1.5 megawatts of demand.
The turbines look tiny and sleek inside their fiberglass shells when seen from the ground and looking 230 feet into the air. But inside are 55 tons of gear boxes, generators and other equipment assembled in Greenville by workers such as Keith Tipton.
"We're not nearly as big as a gas turbine, but the components are awfully heavy," Tipton said of his team's work.
Tipton, 53, is among the plant's newest workers. He started in 1999 after being laid off from a polyester fiber plant in Spartanburg. Before that he worked at a rayon fabric mill in Elizabethton, Tenn. The rayon plant was a landmark in Southern labor history for a strike in 1929 that heralded a wave of labor unrest in the 1930s. It closed after Tipton left.
"There's a super Wal-Mart there now."
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