A New York Town Once Thrived on Fossil Fuels. Now, Wind Energy Is Giving a Lift.

Source: By Jimmy Vielkind, Wall Street Journal • Posted: Monday, March 6, 2023

Wellsville, a 20th-century boomtown with a refinery, gets a second act making parts for wind turbines

A nationwide push toward renewable energy has brought new jobs to Wellsville, N.Y., a town of 7,000 about 80 miles south of Rochester.
A nationwide push toward renewable energy has brought new jobs to Wellsville, N.Y., a town of 7,000 about 80 miles south of Rochester.

WELLSVILLE, N.Y.—This former oil town almost 300 miles from the coast is emerging as one of the early winners in the push to develop offshore wind in the Atlantic Ocean.

The hulking steel components of wind turbines slated to rise out of the ocean east of Long Island are being welded at the Ljungström factory, which for 100 years has sold parts to coal-fired power plants. Plant managers here said their pivot to wind has meant hiring 150 more people and could reopen a facility that has been dormant for several years.

The renewed economic activity has brought new jobs and perspective to some here in Wellsville, a town of 7,000 people about 80 miles south of Rochester that blossomed in the 20th century serving the fossil-fuel economy. As the nation strives to meet a goal of halving greenhouse gas emissions—including enough offshore wind to power 10 million homes—by 2030, the U.S. could see more places with historical ties to traditional energy markets try their hand in renewables.

Some longtime residents are skeptical that a national shift away from fossil fuels will actually pan out, especially as some offshore wind projects have stalled due to permitting issues, supply-chain disruptions and inflation. But state leaders hope the transformation at Ljungström can be a model of revival for other factories—and factory towns—that accompanies the development of more renewable energy.

“They hitched their wagon to a falling star. Now, they have reversed,” said Craig Braack, the longtime historian in Allegany County, which includes Wellsville.

The Ljungström plant, which for 100 years sold parts to coal-fired power plants, now manufactures components in Wellsville for wind turbines.

The town’s heyday came in the first decades of the 20th century, when a refinery processed up to 10,000 barrels a day of oil pumped from wells in the surrounding area. Hotels and stores lined Main Street, and factories took advantage of railroad connections to ship turbines and other power-generation equipment, Mr. Braack said.

Jim Schifley’s father worked at the nearby Dresser-Rand turbine plant for 42 years, but Mr. Schifley said he never applied to work there because of the constant threat of layoffs. He now runs technical education centers that serve area high-schoolers whom he takes on tours of Ljungström.

“It’s taken a while for our area to recover from all those jobs that went away in the ’80s and ’90s, but I think the message is definitely different now,” he said.

Wellsville Mayor Randy Shayler retired last year from a local company now known as Otis Minnesota Services, which builds pipelines. He said some residents are skeptical about wind turbines, but they have nonetheless welcomed the new jobs.

“This is a very Republican area, and we so often are quick to the gun to say ‘Renewable, solar—all of this is bad. We’ve got this energy under the ground,’” he said. “I don’t think anybody had any idea that offshore wind power could have an impact directly on Wellsville.”

A Ljungström employee welds offshore wind-turbine components. The company was able to pivot its experience in steel manufacturing to a new product line.

One hundred years ago, the Air Preheater Corp. opened on the southern edge of the village. It produced massive heat exchangers designed by Swedish inventor Fredrik Ljungström that increased the efficiency of coal- and oil-fired boilers by using hot exhaust to preheat the air that fuels combustion. A series of conglomerates have owned the factory over the years, and it now takes its name from the man who invented its first product.

Output peaked in 2008, then quickly dried up as concern about climate change increased, said Tom Hennessy, Ljungström’s director of project development. Ljungström’s head count shrank to around 200 from as high as 600, he said. Executives said the plant would have 350 employees by June.

The Dresser-Rand plant—which was eventually owned by Germany’s SiemensAG—closed in 2020, putting 500 people out of work. It had been the county’s largest employer.

As U.S. states and cities began setting goals to wean their electric grids from fossil-fuel plants and replace them with wind and solar, Ljungström leveraged its experience in steel manufacturing to develop a new product line.

Tom Hennessy, Ljungström’s director of project development, says more wind contracts could bring the plant’s head count to 500.

“We were not going to let this company go the way of the transistor radio and just disappear. We were at a fork in the road; we knew we had to do something,” Mr. Hennessy said. He is the company’s longest-serving employee. His father started working in the factory in 1946, eventually rising to become president.

Recently, a few dozen workers shaped a 30-foot-diameter steel ring that will form part of an anode cage, a critical piece to protect turbine piles from corrosion in seawater. The components will eventually be part of windfields serving New York, Rhode Island and Connecticut that will be operated by Danish company Ørsted A/S and Eversource Energy, a New England utility.

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority is currently soliciting more offshore wind proposals, and is giving priority to bidders who detail plans to use components produced in the state.

Mr. Hennessy said more wind contracts could bring the factory head count to 500 and the company might even reopen its original building on Main Street.

Don Dodge has worked in various manufacturing roles for over 25 years at Ljungström, which has employed four generations of his family.

Don Dodge, 55 years old, works at Ljungström, where he has spent more than 25 years in various manufacturing roles, starting as a welder. His father, grandfather and son have all worked for the company, and Mr. Dodge said it was a miracle he has never been laid off.

“It looks like I’m going to be able to retire from here,” he said. “It was pretty sketchy until we started moving into this new product.”

Jim Raptis said his family has measured the arc of the community from its restaurant, Texas Hot, which opened in 1921. It was there when the Sinclair refinery closed after a big fire in 1958, when regular railroad service stopped in the 1980s and as the factories downsized.

The Texas Hot restaurant, run by Jim Raptis and his family, has seen the ups and downs of Wellsville over the past century.

The menu has evolved to include foods such as salads, but the signature dish is still a $2.65 hot dog topped with minced onion, yellow mustard and a spiced homemade meat sauce.

“We didn’t feel the Depression here at all, because [of] the oil fields,” said Mr. Raptis. The 92-year-old is the second of four generations to operate the restaurant.

Jim’s granddaughter, Isabelle, said about half the classmates from her high-school graduating class of 2011 remain in the county, but she’s hopeful for the future.

“Staples of the community help you maintain it,” she said.

Write to Jimmy Vielkind at jimmy.vielkind@wsj.com