November 27, 2017 Read More →

Help Wanted: Wind and Solar

Minneapolis Star Tribune:

As utilities rapidly increase the amount of power they get from wind farms, workers willing and able to climb hundreds of feet to keep turbines running smoothly are in high demand. Students in wind power training programs are getting jobs as soon as they graduate or even before.

There’s a similar outlook for solar-energy-related jobs, such as traditionally trained electricians, architects or engineers who get additional training in solar installation in a program like the renewable energy certificate program at Madison Area Technical College, said Ken Walz, an MATC engineering instructor who oversees the college’s renewable energy programs.

As wind and solar energy have grown, they’ve created many jobs nationwide in fields from construction to manufacturing.

A January count by the U.S. Department of Energy concluded that solar generation employed 373,807 people nationwide — the most of any type of electric power production. Wind was second with 101,738 workers; coal generation was third with 86,035, not including 74,000 coal miners.

The energy department counted construction workers who spent a majority of their time on renewable energy projects. Thus, construction made up the highest proportion of employment in solar and wind. The manufacture of equipment for renewable energy projects also played a big role in solar and wind jobs.

In Wisconsin, there were 5,491 jobs in wind and solar energy, the report said, and 62,289 jobs generally in industries that contribute to energy efficiency, such as efficient lighting firms and businesses that work toward achieving the Energy Star designation for consumer products and energy management.

A wind building boom is expected to continue over the next five years. Madison Gas & Electric Co. recently got state approval to build a 33-turbine wind farm in northeastern Iowa that, when the wind blows strongest, will be able to power 47,000 homes. EDP Renewables of Portugal recently completed a 49-turbine wind farm in Lafayette County, and Madison-based Alliant Energy has announced plans, but no specific project, to add wind energy.

Solar should grow, too, even though its immediate future is clouded by threats of heavy U.S. tariffs on solar equipment imports, which would ratchet up the industry’s costs.

“The outlook for clean energy job growth in Wisconsin is very good, especially for solar and wind,” said Tyler Huebner, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a Madison-based nonprofit that advocates for renewable energy.

“Wind power from Wisconsin-based wind farms comprises about 3 percent of the electricity we use in Wisconsin, while solar accounts for just 0.15 percent today,” Huebner said. “The cost of both wind and solar has dropped dramatically in the past decade — costs are down 85 percent for solar and down 66 percent for wind — and they are now very cost-effective, meaning Wisconsin has a very large opportunity to transition towards our energy usage to home-grown renewable energy projects.”

The growth of wind and solar — along with a huge build-out of natural gas-fired power plants — is also eliminating jobs in some traditional energy sectors. U.S. coal mining jobs have plummeted as power companies move away from coal-based generation.

Wind and solar energy have taken off because of a combination of falling costs for equipment, federal tax breaks and environmental concerns. Coal plants are a major emitter of greenhouse gases, while wind and solar produce none. While President Donald Trump has been championing coal, utilities are expected to keep moving to more renewable energy sources.

During 2017’s first six months, wind accounted for 7 percent of all U.S. electricity generation, up from 3.5 percent five years ago and just under 1 percent in 2007, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Solar has grown rapidly, too, but it still accounts for only 1.4 percent of U.S. electricity generation.

Wind service technician is by far the fastest-growing occupation in the country, with an expected growth rate of 108 percent between 2014 and 2024, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The agency says the median annual pay for a wind service technician in 2016 was $52,260.

More: For clean-energy jobs, sky’s the limit

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