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Green technology: From steel mills to wind farms?

A Spanish wind turbine maker puts down roots in Pittsburgh. Yes, Pittsburgh.

Giant wind turbines are seen in a dry field at Los Monegros in Aragon, Spain, July 1, 2005. Spain’s Gamesa Corporacion Tecnologica has put roots down in Pittsburgh. (Albert Gea/Reuters)

PITTSBURGH — Steelworkers tending blast furnaces and rolling mills in Pittsburgh 30 years ago could not have imagined that their jobs would turn so green, or that they would be working for foreign companies that needed their skills.

Because of the convergence of the right political and economic elements, Spain’s Gamesa Corporacion Tecnologica, among the largest wind turbine generator manufacturers worldwide, put roots down in the United States in what would seem to be the most unlikely of places — on the carcasses of Pennsylvania steel mills that were famed for their power to pollute.

Since its arrival in the state in 2004, Gamesa has become one of the drivers behind creating hundreds of unionized “green-collar” jobs and reducing carbon emissions from electrical generation. It also is part of the renewal that has been going on in Pittsburgh and its environs after the demise of the steel industry beginning the in the 1970s.

Besides being a jobs generator, Gamesa’s success in the U.S. is likely to be talked up around the world as an example of how the U.S. has been working to reduce carbon emissions with wind power.

The company, and others involved in renewable energy around Pittsburgh, also got attention last fall when the G20 nations met here. Gamesa was a Pennsylvania campaign stop for President Barack Obama to talk up renewable energy and green jobs.

Gamesa’s $200 million investment in its Pennsylvania facilities also has been held up as a template for retrofitting hulking old industrial sites into clean manufacturing facilities that are still closely linked to steel: 90 percent of the weight of a wind turbine is made of steel — or 250 tons of steel go into every turbine that goes up.

The company employs 700 workers in the state, primarily at a blade plant in Ebensburg, which is 90 minutes from Pittsburgh, and a turbine facility in Fairless Hills, near Philadelphia, on the site of an old U.S. Steel plant.

Gamesa’s growth has created green jobs at other local companies that have long histories in Pittsburgh. PPG Industries Inc., a Gamesa supplier, was founded in the 1800s as a plate-glass and paint company.

More than 100 of the company’s subcontractors are in the state and the facilities have attracted foreign investment from companies such as Hine S.A. in Spain, which makes hydraulic systems used in wind turbine generators.

“We’d like to have everyone in Pennsylvania come and work for us and be the wind energy supply center of the country,” said Michael Peck, director of external relations for Gamesa North America, whose headquarters are in Philadelphia.

It looked like that was going to happen until the economic downturn hit, curtailing orders for the giant towers and turbines as the financing for the development of wind farms tightened after a boom year in 2008.