Wind energy finds new backers from automakers’ woes

CHICAGO — Pete Ostrander and the manufacturer he works for took a hard look at the auto industry four years ago, and neither liked what they saw.

Automakers were pushing vendors such as Merrill Technologies Group, where Ostrander works, to cut costs and, with the economic environment in Detroit worsening by the day, the company retooled itself as a supplier to what it believed was an industry with better prospects.

Ostrander, standing in a display booth at one of the wind industry’s biggest gatherings, was not alone.

Merrill is among dozens of companies at the American Wind Energy Association conference in Chicago — which ends Thursday — that have their traded auto-related business for a niche in wind-power.

“We have seen these indicators for years,” Ostrander, an engineer, said of the auto industry. “They needed to clean up their own closets.”

With the economy’s tailspin, General Motors, Chrysler and Ford have laid off tens of thousands of workers, and Chrysler last week filed for bankruptcy protection.

The problems have rippled through a support network that includes thousands of auto parts makers and other suppliers.

According to the Motor Equipment Manufacturers Association, a trade group for auto industry suppliers, more than a third of such companies said in industry polling that they are in deep financial trouble. More than 40 of them entered bankruptcy last year.

“If you walk that floor, what you will see is that many, many companies — a lot of the small companies — have come from the automotive supply chain,” Don Furman, president of the wind industry organization’s board, said at the conference.