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Sudbury harnesses power of wind in new deal (6/02)

By Ian Ross Rick Gagnon had to choke back tears while being interviewed about his new Northern Ontario partnership with a German maker of wind turbines.

By Ian Ross

Rick Gagnon had to choke back tears while being interviewed about his new Northern Ontario partnership with a German maker of wind turbines. For the Sudbury entrepreneur, it was the culmination of two-and-a-half years of building up personal relationships with senior executives of REpower Systems AG towards a joint-venture deal that was sealed May 15 at Tom Davies Square with handshakes, hugs and signatures on a contract.

Their new company, REpower Canada, will create 90 full- and part-time jobs and open doors to a new and potentially booming local manufacturing sector that will see wind powered turbines assembled in Sudbury for the North American market.

“This has been very exciting,” says the president of Gagnon Renewable Resources Inc., a Sudbury and Manitoulin manufacturer of environmentally friendly water filtration, composting and green energy products.

“I’ve been in contact with them for years trying to get their technology into my scope of work,” says Gagnon, who has been installing wind turbine and solar systems on Manitoulin Island for 12 years.

Based in Hamburg and Barnim, REpower Systems AG, one of the world’s most advanced manufacturers of wind turbines and other renewable energy systems, has embarked on an ambitious expansion program spread over 11 countries.

They currently have more than 650 wind turbines installed worldwide.

“They were organizing trips to come to North America to bring business to Sudbury four months prior to their first trade mission here,” says Gagnon. “We were introduced and the business just exploded from there.

Gagnon enters this partnership with an old business partner and fellow Sudburian Rick Walker and his son, Richard, of the Consbec Group of Companies, which manages a broad portfolio of pipeline, road construction, mining and hydroelectric interests.

“REpower have a power curve technology in their turbines that matches or is superior to everyone else’s on the market right now,” he says.

“But the biggest potential for this venture is not only that they’re bringing good, solid simple technology, they’re allowing us to buy into their company to bring manufacturing here.”

Germany is regarded as the world’s largest producer of electricity from wind generation, currently producing more than 6,000 megawatts of wind power and is expected to triple production over the next three years.

“There is no doubt that our Sudbury consortium has picked a winner,” says Sudbury Mayor Jim Gordon.

The announcement was the capper on a four-day trade mission by a delegation of regional government and industry leaders from Barnim County, Germany to Sudbury during the week of May 12.

REpower is the first major success story to emerge out of Sudbury’s ongoing efforts to cultivate transatlantic business opportunities in the former East Germany, stemming from the city’s participation in a Northern Ontario trade mission to the 2000 World Trade Expo in Hanover.

Besides the joint venture signing, Gordon and Barnim County executive Bodo Inrke inked an economic co-operation agreement between the two municipalities pledging to work together on future projects in areas of business promotion, environmental technologies, renewable energies, plant engineering and construction, and the promotion of both regions’ economic structures.

REpower Canada is being hailed as the first company of its kind in Canada to build wind machines, “both parts and labour from the ground up,” says Gordon.

With the business plan still being drawn up, the intent is to manufacture towers for wind generating farms immediately out of a building in the Val Caron industrial park, says Gagnon, with the generators and blades to be added as the company grows.

How much of an investment this development represents for Sudbury was not disclosed, but Gagnon and Gordon say there will be lucrative spinoffs for engineering firms and educational institutions.

The Sudbury partners have been talking with many local companies — suppliers and contractors — of prospective opportunities associated with this venture, as well as Science North, Laurentian University and its materials and manufacturing program about some research and development opportunities in areas such as new turbine design for extreme climates.

“With this company we’re bringing their engineering and we’re going to teach our own people to develop wind farms,” says Gagnon.

“We’re going to manufacture and sustain other local businesses in being incremental partners in building the structure and quality control plant.

“For fabrication shops looking to diversify, they will have opportunity to work with us from the towers right through to the blade manufacturing.”