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Renewable future for Timken Co.

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Timken Co. is expanding into solar energy thanks to the addition last year of Cone Drive, a Michigan company that makes gears.

 

Renewable energy has secured a spot in Timken Co.'s future.


Since 2007, the company has been involved in wind energy, supplying bearings and servicing turbines. Timken established a position in solar energy last year with the addition of Cone Drive, a company that makes gears.


That positions Timken for future growth, if projections in the BloombergNEF New Energy Outlook 2019 prove to be correct. The study predicts that by the year 2050 nearly half of the electric power worldwide will be generated using solar or wind technology.


About 5% percent of the world's power is generated by wind technology, according to the study. That should increase to 26% percent by 2050.


Timken has been active in the wind energy market for just over a decade, and the segment now accounts for more than 4% the company's revenue. Shipments have topped $1 billion over the last 10 years and there is a growing aftermarket component.


As wind turbines have gotten larger, Timken has gained recognition for technical leadership and innovation, becoming a preferred bearing development provider, spokesman Scott Schroeder explained in an email. Last year, the company designed and built Timken’s largest mainshaft bearing, which had an outside diameter of 3.4 meters.


Solar growth

The BloombergNEF study said solar power currently generates about 2% of the world's electrical energy, but is expected to see the greatest growth, producing 22% of the power by 2050.


That is where adding Cone Drive helps because half of its annual sales — projected at $100 million when Timken bought the business in 2018 — come from the solar energy sector, said Kurt Gamelin, president of the Michigan-based operation.


"We've seen nice strong rapid growth on that side of the business," said Gamelin, who has been worked 19 years with Cone Drive.


The company, which Timken purchased from Clyde Blowers Capital based in Scotland, moved into the energy business in 2009. Cone Drive makes double-enveloping worm gears that are used in solar energy arrays to position panels or mirrors at an angle where they can absorb or reflect sunlight.


Cone Drive supplies gears for both photovoltaic (PV) motion control arrays and concentrated solar power (CSP) systems.


Systems using PV solar cells are more common. Panels collect and convert sunlight into electricity that is supplied to the grid or used to power equipment.


CSP systems have been used since the late 1960s but are less common. Mirrors or lenses are used to reflect and concentrate sunlight on a small area. The concentrated light is converted to heat, which will drive an engine or can power a thermochemical reaction to generate electricity.


Cone Drive decided to pursue potential customers in the solar energy market, Gamelin said, because the company knew it had technology that would work in what it believed would be a growth market.


"It was just a perfect fit to hit a growth market in a technology that we already has a footprint in," Gamelin said.

Several customers began using Cone Drive gears for PV arrays. The panels are tilted on a single axis to track the sun and Cone Drive had gears to meet those needs.


Precision angles

CSP systems, which collect sunlight and reflect it toward a tower, proved to be more complicated.

Gamelin said the gears must be more precise and capable of locking in place. Cone Drive has worked with companies that develop tracking systems to design and test gears that meet customer needs.


The tower in a CSP system absorbs sunlight that heats a combination of steam and molten salt, which powers turbines that generate electricity. Mirrors that surround the tower — in some cases as many as 50,000 — must be precisely angled to capture and reflect the sunlight. Some of the mirrors can be up to 2,000 feet away from the tower.

Cone Drive products help synchronize the mirrors to follow the sun and precisely reflect the sunlight toward a target that measures 3 meters or less, Gamelin explained.


The company has helped develop five CSP systems. The Ivanpah solar thermal power system in California's Mohave Desert uses 300,000 mirrors that are controlled by software to track the sun and reflect the light to boilers on top of three towers that are 457 feet high.


BrightSource Energy is using Cone Drive's technology at the California facility, and at similar systems in Israel and Dubai. Cone Drive equipment also has been used at two facilities in China.


The CSP facilities are more like traditional power stations because the systems are capable of storing energy. They also can generate power at night. Those factors should lead to increased development of CSP systems, Gamelin said.


While the solar business provides half of Cone Drive's revenue, the company is diversified and supplies gears and parts for 25 markets, Gamelin said. The products are heavily engineered and in many instances are specific for a customer's use.

2019-09-16