U.S. Wind Market Lures Car-Parts Maker

A gearbox for a wind turbine is mechanically very similar to a car transmission. Essentially, the gearbox steps up the speed of the spinning turbine blades, so that the torque requirements for the generator can be lower. It is for this very reason that companies like ZF Friedrichshafen, a global supplier of transmissions, steering systems, axle and chassis components, are getting into the wind power business.

ZF has announced the opening of its first wind turbine gearbox manufacturing plant in Gainesville, Ga. The plant, about 60 miles northeast of Atlanta, will build ZF’s Atlas 1 gearboxes for integration with Vestas’ 2-megawatt wind turbines. ZF invested about €70 million (US$96 million) in the Georgia plant, which is expected to eventually employ 250 workers as it cranks out about 1,000 gearboxes each year.

wind turbine gearbox, ZF Friedrichshafen

image via ZF Friedrichshafen

ZF has been building parts for the North American automotive industry for over 30 years, with 16 locations in the United States and six in Mexico. With the Gainesville plant, ZF aims to establish itself in the growing U.S. wind power market. The company also hopes that its plans to acquire Belgian wind turbine gearbox manufacturer Hansen will help it tap the Asian and European wind power markets.

“As a leading automotive supplier, we can rely on product and process know-how that was developed over decades. Therefore, we distinguish ourselves from our competitors,” says Michael Paul, a manager in ZF’s wind division. The company expects to see massive sales growth in the United States over the next few years, and plans to increase its U.S. workforce from 2,400 to 3,100 by the end of 2011.

Lauren Craig is a writer and consultant living in Seattle, WA. She holds an M.S. in International Development from Tulane University, and is co-founder of Sustainable Systems Integrators, LLC., an employee-owned solar energy design and installation firm in New Orleans, LA. She is also certified in PV design and installation by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP).