Lawrence Quinn, president of Alstom Chattanooga Turbines LLC, hovered like a concerned parent around his significantly overweight baby.
A handful of red-shirted workers steadied the shrink-wrapped package with ropes as a crane lifted it at a glacial pace, while another two dozen Alstom employees stood by in bright green safety vests.
Over the next 30 minutes, the first ever Chattanooga-built gas turbine lifted from the earth and disappeared slowly into a Tennessee River barge bound for New Orleans.
From there the 240-ton generator, which can power more than 700,000 homes, will make its way to Queretaro, Mexico.
"I'm elated," Quinn said. "People are so excited, like going out with your first girlfriend."
The natural gas industry has picked up significant steam since the Alstom plant opened in 2010, while the nuclear industry has weathered a literal tsunami that has damped expectations somewhat.
While the plant was designed to accommodate the giant nuclear turbines, which are the largest in the world, it has no problem churning out gas turbines either, said Quinn. Alstom also has refurbished turbines for coal plants, and will continue to offer that service as pollution regulations force utilities to modernize their fleet.
"I see a more complete mix going forward," he said. "Certainly there's been a slowdown [on nuclear]."
Alstom's newest turbine isn't just the first natural gas turbine built from the ground up in Chattanooga. It's the first one Alstom has built entirely in the United States, said Patrick Fetzer, regional vice president for Alstom's natural gas business.
During the natural gas boom in the 1990s, the company assembled several generators in Richmond, Va., but the parts were shipped from overseas.
"Now, we do everything here," Fetzer said. "We moved our entire supply chain for this plant."
Customers, which mostly will consist of U.S. utilities that pay with public dollars, like the fact that the turbine is made here, he said. But they especially appreciate the decreased cost that comes from making the turbines domestically instead of shipping them piecemeal across the Atlantic.
In addition, U.S.-based fabrication means the French corporation doesn't suffer from exchange rate fluctuation between dollars and Euros, which can create huge losses for companies that are paid in one currency but must pay their employees and suppliers in another.
Workers already have started on turbine number two, which shouldn't take as long as the yearlong effort to build the first one, he said. Part of the delay arose from $10 million worth of training for the plant's 250 workers, which will rise soon to 320 by early 2013, said spokeswoman Fallon McLoughlin.
Quinn said that Alstom was "casting a net nationwide" as the facility ramps up to full employment.
"Morale is high here," Quinn said. "They see a future and they have pride in their work."
Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...