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Tank-building company finds clean energy niche

Mass Tank of Middleborough has long constructed fuel and water tanks, even huge containers for holding candy. Nowit turns to a new market: building towers for massive wind turbines, including one going up in April in Plymouth. Above, Ed Costello of Mass Tank at work.

JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF

Mass Tank of Middleborough has long constructed fuel and water tanks, even huge containers for holding candy. Nowit turns to a new market: building towers for massive wind turbines, including one going up in April in Plymouth. Above, Ed Costello of Mass Tank at work.

MIDDLEBOROUGH - Mass Tank Sales Corp. was founded more than 50 years ago to make fuel oil tanks for walk-up apartment buildings in Boston. Over the years, it diversified into water tanks, a variety of fuel tanks, and even confectionery tanks that store unprocessed candy for sweets makers like Necco and Tootsie Roll.

Now, Mass Tank has found a new line of business: wind power. Adapting the techniques it uses to transform steel sheets into tanks of 15,000 gallons or more, the company will make 20-story towers that support wind turbine blades.

JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF

A Mass Tank employee welded a tank in Middleborough. Mass Tank is building a wind turbine tower that will be trucked 20 miles to Plymouth in three parts, then assembled there.

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Mass Tank is expected to announce today that it has signed its first agreement to build a 225-foot tower for the US subsidiary of the world’s fourth-largest wind turbine maker, Xinjiang Goldwind Science & Technology Co. Ltd. of China.

The structure, expected to go up in April, will become part of a 1.5-megawatt wind turbine at the Camelot Industrial Park off Route 3 in Plymouth.

“For Mass Tank to grow and survive, we have to continuously look at bringing on additional products,’’ said Mass Tank’s chief executive, Carl Horstmann, who declined to say how much the Goldwind contract is worth. “Making the rolled, steel towers is a natural evolution.’’

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Mass Tank is another example of how firms in traditional industries adapt to changing times and changing markets, and a reminder that Massachusetts’ innovation economy is hardly limited to technology and biotechnology. Over the course of the past two centuries, the state’s manufacturers have survived and prospered by finding new products and customers, advancing from textiles to telecommunications to medical devices.

For companies like Mass Tank, “Clean energy is providing a new marketplace for them,’’ said Greg Bialecki, the state’s secretary of Housing and Economic Development.

Indeed, Horstmann already envisions a jump in business that could come from building turbine towers, especially with Governor Deval Patrick pushing to install 2,000 megawatts of wind power capacity in Massachusetts by 2020, enough to power at least 525,000 homes.

As the only turbine tower manufacturer in Massachusetts so far, Horstmann figures Mass Tank would have a competitive advantage for local projects since the cost of transporting the large, heavy structures is so high. Getting a wind turbine tower from a manufacturing plant to its final location typically costs about a third of the project’s final price tag. But since the Goldwind tower is traveling a relatively short distance, transportation will be much cheaper, said Stephen Lynch, Mass Tank’s executive vice president for business development.

The Goldwind tower will be trucked roughly 20 miles to Plymouth in three parts, then assembled into a single 270,000-pound structure. At its base, the walls of the tower will be just over an inch thick - about two to four times thicker than the steel the company uses in making tanks - then taper as it rises.

Horstmann bought Mass Tank 14 years ago, after leaving a career as a consultant in international banking. Since he purchased the company, business has expanded along with the size of tanks, which have grown to an average capacity of 15,000 gallons from 2,000 gallons. In addition to the fuel and oil tanks the company made when he purchased the business, Mass Tank builds custom tanks for pharmaceutical companies, candy makers, and others.

Horstmann first became intrigued by opportunities in wind power when he saw a rendering of the foundations that would anchor the 440-foot towers that Cape Wind plans to install in Nantucket Sound. The cylindrical steel foundations bore a striking resemblance to tanks manufactured by his company.

He approached Cape Wind developer Jim Gordon in late 2010, and negotiated a preliminary agreement to make the foundations. But with the controversial project still at least a year from breaking ground, Mass Tank turned to making the towers themselves.

Mass Tank operates in a 60,000-square-foot facility where firetrucks were once made by Maxim Motor Co., a company started in Middleborough.

Mass Tank began working with Goldwind last fall to design the towers, and come up with a manufacturing schedule. The company, which has 30 to 50 workers at its facility at any given time, expects to add additional shifts for the project, which will take about a month. The steel is scheduled to start arriving this week.

In Mass Tank’s cavernous plant, workers recently assembled tanks, creating enormous steel sheets and welding edges with torches that sparked like firecrackers.

To form a tank, a large steel sheet is run through a machine - the plate roll - that bends it into a cylinder. It is then welded shut, equipped with a main opening point and pipe fittings, and capped on both ends.

One worker welded a steel cylinder, roughly 15 feet in diameter, similar to a section of the wind turbine tower.

“It’s the same technology,’’ Horstmann said. but “there are a couple of different standards we have to adhere to,’’ such as X-raying the welds to ensure the tower is sound.

Whether wind power and other alternative energy sectors will provide long-term opportunities for the state’s manufacturers remains to be seen, said Robert Rio, a senior vice president at the trade group Associated Industries of Massachusetts Inc. The clean technology industry remains dependent on government subsidies, and its future is uncertain in the face of concerns about mounting budget deficits.

But overall, he added, “It’s always good when our manufacturers can repurpose existing equipment or existing technology to make new technologies.’’

Horstmann, meanwhile, is bullish on the prospects for wind power.

“We think this is going to be a big business,’’ Horstmann said. “Looking at the Goldwind opportunity, the Cape Wind opportunity - it fits into our skill set.’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.
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