Monday, May 07, 2007

Guest Blog: Wind Power: A Shot in the Arm for Manufacturing

Sometimes overlooked is that wind energy is not only clean and renewable, it creates jobs as well.
By Elizabeth Salerno
Policy Analyst
(From the American Wind Energy Association publication Windletter, March 2007)

Across the U.S, rural towns and cities have lost economic ground from the decline of once-reliable and flourishing industries such as railroad and steel. Many of those towns and cities, though, are now seizing an opportunity to make a comeback.

As the wind industry grows at a rate of nearly 30% per year, the manufacturing and services that provide the foundation of the wind industry have to keep up. From Pennsylvania to Washington, from North Dakota to Louisiana, manufacturing facilities, each of which employ hundreds of workers, are popping up—all because of the demand for wind.

On-the-ground evidence

Although wind energy’s potential contribution to the nation’s energy needs remains huge, it still provides less than 1% of the nation’s electricity. Here’s the upside of that story, though: in spite of its relatively small share of the current energy mix, wind power is already proving to be a powerful catalyst for job creation in the U.S. Better yet, those jobs are usually in manufacturing, a sector often lamented these days for departing the country in search of foreign lands, where labor costs are lower. Wind is countering a trend in this sector, which lost over 2.5 million jobs between 2001 and 2004. Here are just a few examples of how wind has made an economic difference—and take note that these examples can be found all over the country, even in economically hard-hit regions once known for being bustling manufacturing hubs.

Clinton, Ill., was a thriving railroad town at the turn of the 20th century. Today, both the farming and manufacturing sectors underpin the town’s economic stability, and wind energy is doing its part. Trinity Industries, Inc., a manufacturer of tubular wind towers, this year is expanding and renovating its facility in Clinton. Pouring an additional $15 million into the plant, Trinity expects to add 140 new full-time jobs to what will become one of the largest tubular wind tower production facilities in North America.

Fairless Hill, Pa., is the former home of a 2,500-acre U.S. Steel site that once employed as many as 7,000 workers. Employment at the plant started declining in 1982, and steady downsizing followed through the years until only 100 employees were left in 2001. Then in 2006, Spanish company Gamesa Corp. started planting roots in Fairless Hill, building three brand-new facilities on 20 acres of the old U.S. Steel site. The facilities will produce wind towers and blades, and assemble nacelles as well. Putting over $34 million into the plant, Gamesa will employ over 300 workers there. That’s in addition to the 230 jobs Gamesa already provides at its facility in Cambria County in the western part of the state and its North American headquarters in Philadelphia.

Now jump to Grand Forks, N.D., a town devastated by a flood in 1997. Refusing to bow to defeat, the town put in place mechanisms to stimulate economic development, restore the tax base, and rehabilitate its way of life. A wind energy industry company was one that answered the town’s call. In 1998, blade manufacturer LM Glasfiber teamed up as a business partner with the town and has brought over 500 jobs to the town, adding nearly 100 in 2006 and 2007 alone. In 2006, Forbes magazine ranked Grand Forks 28th in the nation for “Best Small Metros in Business & Career.”

In Fort Madison, Iowa, meanwhile, a former Wabash National Corp. facility that once produced trucks until being shut down in 2001 is now being converted by German company Siemens Corp. into a wind blade manufacturing plant. The facility will eventually employ 200 people and will produce 150-foot blades for Siemens’ 2.3-MW wind turbines. With 500 jobs lost as a result of the Wabash plant closing, in addition to the thousands of jobs lost in southeast Iowa due to factory closings across the board, it should have been no surprise that job fairs held last December at two local high schools drew some 2,600 people, all of whom were hoping to land one of those 200 coveted, well-paying jobs at the new blade facility.

While the production of towers and blades obviously provides new jobs and economic growth, the wind energy industry extends far beyond those products. The industry also needs the nuts and bolts to hold together the ladders that go inside the steel towers, which support the nacelles, which house the gearboxes and generators—which in turn need bearings, metal shafts, brake discs, and pumps. Moreover, the large components that make up a wind turbine must be transported to the wind sites by trucking services that can accommodate oversized products; assembled on-site by skilled workers; and finally connected to the grid by electrical engineers.

Training a growing workforce

As the need for manufacturing and construction services expands to accommodate the rapidly growing wind industry, the need for skilled workers is also expanding. Educational institutions are increasingly seeing opportunities to meet that need.
In Cleveland, Wis., Lakeshore Technical College provides a two-year electrical apprenticeship with courses for students interested in wind systems. Lakeshore even provides a course in renewable energy interconnection, allowing students to understand the electrical equipment used in renewable energy systems and the application of the National Electric Code to these systems.

And for students wishing to continue their education in wind, St. Francis University in Pennsylvania is getting ready to offer a graduate business degree in renewable energy with a concentration in wind power, tentatively beginning in the fall. The program will include courses focusing on finance, marketing, environmental science, and project management, and will also have an internship requirement. Finally, with St. Francis developing its own wind farm (scheduled for completion this summer), students will gain hands-on experience working with wind turbines.

Meanwhile, individual wind energy facilities must train workers to keep up with demand. Suzlon Rotor Corp. broke ground in late 2006 on a facility in Pipestone, Minn.; to train employees needed for the plant, which will produce blades and generator cones, the company contributed funds to nearby Minnesota West Community and Technical College. The plant is expected to employ over 300 people.

Will America lose out on this opportunity?

The wind industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the world, and with the demand and need for domestic, clean and available energy sources only increasing, there are no signs of its slowing. The industry has already brought new facilities and thousands of jobs to help meet the needs of installing 2,000-3,000 MW of wind per year in the U.S., making wind the second largest energy source for new electric generation capacity.

The U.S., however, is not the only country that can build wind turbines. Demand for wind energy is growing around the globe. The U.S. installed the most megawatts in 2006 with 2,434 MW, but Germany, India, Spain, and China installed over 1,300 MW each—and over 7,000 MW in total—creating serious global demand for wind turbines. The U.S. already imports most of its turbines from Europe. India and China can build them cost effectively and, with growing demand in those countries, they may play a big role in production in the future. Competition for this attractive industry will be stiff.

In the wind industry, it is cost-effective for suppliers to set up shop near customers, largely because of the transportation costs that go with shipping the giant components. If the U.S. adopted a stable long-term policy to signal the nation’s need for clean and domestic renewable energy, U.S. wind industry manufacturing growth could be catapulted to a whole new level. A long-term extension of the production tax credit, a national renewable portfolio standard, enactment of a federal climate change policy, and Congressional leadership on expanding the transmission grid would each augment the economic and job growth we are already seeing today. And there are numbers to back this up: an analysis from the Union of Concerned Scientists reported that over 300,000 American jobs could be created by a 20% renewable portfolio standard by 2020.

Just as wind’s energy potential has barely been tapped, we have only just begun to see wind’s potential to create economic benefits.

Copyright 2007 - American Wind Energy Association. May be freely re-transmitted electronically, for non-commercial purposes only, provided this notice is included. All other rights reserved.

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