GE tech rebirth follows era of heavy industry
SCHENECTADY There was a time when the Schenectady General Electric campus where President Barack Obama visited Friday was the workplace of 40,000 people who toiled in 240 buildings covering 600 acres.
It was called the Schenectady Works and “America’s largest electrical workshop.” The sprawling “city within a city” had its own football, baseball and soccer fields, along with a clubhouse and tennis courts, according to 1949 brochure. It had sound studios, a restaurant, TV station, fire department, “the house of magic,” as the laboratories were called, a hospital and more.
Here, men and women manufactured “great steam turbines and waterwheel generators for power stations; motors and generators for operation of factories and propulsion of ships.” They also made wire and cable, control equipment and industrial devices, porcelain products, and many other types of electrical apparatus.
“Our products are sent to every corner of the globe and have done much to lighten the burden of man and improve standards of living,” the brochure said. “The Schenectady Works covers so much ground that you may be able to visit only a few of its many buildings in the time at your disposal.”
Only a few of the 240 buildings remain, including the massive Building 273, which covers 20 acres and is where steam turbines are built. It was the world’s largest turbine manufacturing facility when built in 1950.
Over the years, GE diversified itself, becoming a multinational conglomerate employing 300,000 people and earning some $11 billion in 2009. In the process, it shed jobs and moved some operations out of Schenectady.
What is left in the city of Schenectady today is known as GE Power & Water, one of three companies that comprise the business division called GE Energy Infrastructure, headed by John Krenicki. A tour of the site would last less than a day.
GE has other operations in the area, including a training and education center and world-renowned research and development center in Niskayuna. It recently completed a $150 million renovation of the research center, adding 200 jobs. The facility employs approximately 2,000.
GE also has a mammography production facility at the Rensselaer Technology Park. In all, the company employs 7,000 people in the Capital Region.
At the main plant in downtown Schenectady, GE Power & Water employs approximately 4,000 people. The company focuses on a full array of power generation and energy delivery technologies.
GE Power & Water includes the subsidiary GE Wind Energy with its Renewable Energy Headquarters. GE Wind Energy is one of the world’s leading wind turbine suppliers. GE has more than 13,500 wind turbines installed around the globe. GE manufactures the turbines in facilities outside of Schenectady, but monitors them at an operations center on the Schenectady campus.
GE spent $45 million in 2008 to convert Building 53, a former gas turbine manufacturing facility, into the monitoring center. GE built the operations center as part of a strategic plan to expand its renewable energy business.
GE’s wind turbine business generated $7 billion for the company last year. GE has invested $1 billion in wind turbine technology since entering the market in 2002. Before the center was built, GE monitored wind turbines from the farm sites themselves.
Also at the main plant in Schenectady, GE is building a $100 million factory to produce sodium metal halide batteries. The battery plant will open this year and is projected to produce approximately 10 million cells annually when at full capacity. The power cells will have the capability of generating 900 megawatt hours of energy per year — the equivalent of the battery power required for 45,000 plug-in hybrid electric vehicles with an 80-mile range, or enough energy to support 1,000 GE hybrid locomotives, the company states.
“[The president’s visit on Friday] was a recognition this is a major hub and cornerstone for GE’s growing energy business,” said Ray Gillen, commissioner of economic development and planning for Schenectady County.
“One of the things we are saying is they have research and development in Niskayuna, energy training and a learning center, and engineering in the county. They can do research, development, testing and training and service all in one county. It is a hub for GE’s energy business when everyone is focused on the need to grow the energy business,” Gillen said.