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Sunday, October 19, 2008

3M taps into wind-power business with new `Wind Tape’

by Bob Geiger Staff Writer

Dr. Mike Strommen (Photo: Bill Klotz)
Dr. Mike Strommen (Photo: Bill Klotz)
3M Co., best known for its Scotch Tape, Post-it brand notes and adhesives, is going into the wind-energy business, with a new line of fillers and protective coverings that can extend the life of wind turbine blades.

The 3M Wind Tape product line, part of the $24.5 billion Maplewood-based company’s new Renewable Energy division, puts 3M Co. in the middle of the scramble to develop renewable energy that will reduce the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels and pare global greenhouse gas emissions.

“About two years ago, we started an effort to search for wind-energy business partners,” said Dr. Mike Strommen, global wind-energy segment leader for the company’s renewable energy division. “Of our 55,000-plus products, many of them would be a natural match for the wind industry.”

3M quietly rolled out clear and opaque Wind Tape in mid-2007 – one year before the formation of the Renewable Energy division that includes solar and wind power was announced.

That tape, designed to cover the leading edge of huge wind turbine blades, was developed in reaction to so-called “Voice of Customer,” or VOC, sessions to discuss emerging needs of customers, manufacturers and other product users.

Although Strommen wouldn’t name 3M customers, VOC meetings likely put 3M executives in the same room with U.S. and European-based with wind turbine manufacturers General Electric, Acciona, Gamesa, Nortel and Vestas.

Designed to protect the leading edge of 120-foot, 12-ton fiberglass turbines, 3M’s Wind Tape comes in eight-inch wide, 54-foot rolls that cost at least $288.

That’s pretty expensive for a roll of tape, but Strommen said many turbine blades with a factory finish have significant damage after just two years of generating electricity.

“It has a lot to do with wind and erosion control,” he said. “Wind (turbine) blades spin at 180 miles-per-hour. Remember that these blades are composite materials. After a year or two years of use, you can get erosion or pitting at the leading edge of that (turbine) blade.

“That pitting can affect the structural integrity of that blade. Wind turbine blades are not short or sleek – they range up to 120 feet in length, weigh 12 tons and cost an average of $100,000,” he said.

By protecting turbine blades against damage, he estimated that Wind Tape could add between seven and 10 years to the life of a blade.

“This is a polyurethane tape. It has a high elongation or stretch, and spreads that impact out over a larger area,” Strommen said.

3M’s Wind Tape is a natural progression from erosion-control tape the company manufactures to shield helicopter blades, which aren’t nearly as large as wind turbines or in rural areas when a service call is required.

Wind Tape is only one of several products that 3M has created or is designing to the fast-growing wind energy industry.

Domestic wind-energy production surpassed 20 gigawatts in September, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). The Washington, D.C.-based trade organization ranks Minnesota fourth in wind energy production, with 1.366 megawatts.

Tall wind turbines located mostly in rural areas drive most such power generation, which is attractive to investors; the segment is growing because of available tax credits and state-mandated reductions in carbon emissions to curb global warming.

“Our impetus for doing this is that 2007 turbine manufacturing grew 30 percent to $36 billion (globally),” Strommen said. “Reasons for this are that wind-generated electricity has become price-competitive with coal. The wind industry believes that it won’t need the Production Tax Credit (PTC) because of the increasing cost of fossil fuel-produced energy.”

Still, AWEA and other wind energy interests lobbied for the PTC, which gives renewable energy producers a two-cent credit for each kilowatt hour of electricity generated. That $17 billion measure was tucked into the $810 billion Wall Street bailout bill recently passed by Congress.

Growth of the wind-energy industry was underscored by a technical market research report issued in August by Wellesley, Mass.-based BCC Research.

The report indicated that that U.S. wind turbine components and systems would be worth $60.9 billion in 2013 – more than five times the 2008 market value of $11.2 billion.

3M wants to be part of the aggressive growth forecast contained in BCC’s report, which equates to a compound annual growth rate of 40 percent.

“The reality of 3M is we’re a materials firm,” Strommen said. “We don’t sell as much in the aftermarket as we do in the manufacturing process.”

And there’s plenty of manufacturing and product tweaking that will occur as wind-energy developers strive to generate more power that 3M wants to be part of.

Additionally, 3M’s presence in 60 countries around the world translates to additional products and revenues as global renewable energy efforts increase.

How many manufacturers?

“Almost all of them,” Strommen said. “We do business in 60 countries. And we have wind-energy teams that are calling on them.

“Up until now, they didn’t have 3M Renewable Energy on their cards. Now 3M Renewable Energy will be on their cards,” he said.

In addition to 3M’s Wind Tape, the company’s wind-energy products include turbine-blade coatings to protect from temperature extremes, fillers and blade fillers. The industry’s boom also has created an opportunity for 3M to sell its existing respiratory products to turbine-blade fabricators, Strommen said.

Reducing icing, a concept with which Minnesotans are familiar, could pare the seven days a year that wind turbines are down to remove ice accumulations, Strommen said.

And blade weight could become lighter through another product innovation being worked by 3M technicians: Glass microspheres with a diameter of 18 micrometers top improve productivity because a lighter blade can spin faster.

Finally, because wind-turbine blades are exposed to the elements, an application of a drag-reducing sharkskin-like skin could be helpful, Strommen said, in much the same way as the high-tech swim suits used by the U.S. Olympic team.

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