The blade of General Electric’s Haliade-X windmill cut an imposing path through the air, a 50-ton structure of reinforced glass fiber and polyester material stretching longer than a football field.
The massive blade served as an appropriate backdrop for GE chief executive Larry Culp to make his first public appearance at a local political event — a gathering of government and business leaders on Tuesday at the state’s wind-technology testing center in Charlestown.
Former chief executive Jeff Immelt opted for a downtown high-rise to unveil GE’s grand plans for its Boston headquarters move in 2016. Culp, meanwhile, picked an industrial waterfront to make a rare local public appearance, a place where GE’s manufacturing is being put to the test. Nuts-and-bolts versus hoopla. Show, don’t tell.
The Haliade-X would be the most powerful offshore windmill in the world when it enters commercial use: 12 megawatts of capacity, or enough power for 5,000 homes. The prototype blade arrived by barge from France last week for tests to ensure it can withstand 25 years at sea. GE recently signed contracts with Danish energy giant Orsted to supply these turbines for wind farms off the coasts of New Jersey and Maryland.
GE, of course, has changed dramatically in the three-plus years since Immelt’s fanfare for Boston . Culp has been on the road, meeting with investors and employees as he pares the company’s size and scope to improve its cash flow and finally give some sort of lift to its moribund stock. A new GE is emerging, one focused on power in various forms: natural gas, renewable energy, jet engines. (GE also remains a major player in health care equipment and services.)
Are investors finally starting to buy in? Maybe. But it will take time. GE unveiled better-than-expected cash flow guidance for 2019 last week — i.e. it won’t be on the negative side of the ledger — and shares rose nearly 12 percent in one day. The stock closed at its highest point for the year on Tuesday, at $10.97, although that’s still roughly one-third of its price three short years ago.
Culp has pared the company’s grand headquarters plans accordingly, and returned the state funds that were once committed to subsidize its construction. GE’s 250-person Boston workforce finally moves into its new home overlooking the Fort Point Channel after Thanksgiving from rented space nearby. But this 95,000-square-foot brick-and-beam complex will be far more modest than what Immelt envisioned.
Meanwhile, the understated Culp said only a few words about the move to the crowd during his time at the podium. Instead, he focused on the energy to be harnessed by the massive blade above his head. GE is committed to solving big problems, he told the audience, and there’s no greater challenge today than providing clean, reliable and affordable energy.
GE is among the global leaders in the onshore wind business. Offshore wind, not so much. But Culp later told me that diving deep into offshore wind is crucial for GE to remain competitive. The Haliade-X is exhibit A of that commitment.
The Haliade-X represents an important milestone for Culp, and for GE. The blade’s arrival is also a symbolic victory for Massachusetts. We were once poised to have the nation’s first large-scale offshore wind farm. But that project, developed by the Vineyard Wind joint venture, remains hung up in unexpected federal permitting delays. Other East Coast states — New Jersey, New York, and Maryland, among them — are racing to the front.
That race isn’t over yet. Mayflower Wind won contracts last week to finance the state’s second big offshore wind farm, and there are long-term plans to build much more. Two weeks ago, the state launched a first-of-its-kind training facility for the industry at the Mass. Maritime Academy in Bourne. There were plenty of other “firsts” mentioned by state officials on Tuesday.
In my interview, Culp talked about why the move to Boston from Connecticut has helped GE. It’s easy, he said, to attract the people GE wants and needs for its corporate workforce. It’s not just wind energy; Boston, he added, happens to be a hub of activity for all GE’s major business lines.
Culp may be based here, but he doesn’t spend much time at his desk — or at staged events such as the one in Charlestown. His appearance at the Harvard College China Forum might be his only other public event in Greater Boston since becoming chief executive in October 2018.
For Culp, it’s more important to be out in the field, where the work happens. Maybe he can build GE back to greatness, one giant blade at a time.