While some sectors of the US economy recover, the common small business still feels the pinch. If you've been hit particularly hard by the economy, lost your job, or had trouble finding more than seasonal work, a wind-energy related career may provide just the stability you need. Among other jobs, wind energy demands engineering, heavy equipment, day labor, janitorial and guard duty experience, and careers in wind are growing – almost certainly for the next 10 years – probably longer. In many cases, staying power comes from state-set Renewable Energy/Portfolio Standards (RES, RPS) that obligate utilities to install energy farms, but even when energy targets are met, momentum and invested interest helps installations exceed them.
There is no typical wind-farm size, but some can contain hundreds of turbines; huge pieces of machinery that push the limits of transport, arriving in single pieces. Planning, building, transporting, foundations, constructing, and maintaining even a single wind turbine is a lot of coordinated work; even the massive blades are glued together by careful eyes and hands. All of this is good news for industrial workers who've been hit especially hard by the economy.
Retooling and Progress
In response to the disastrous effects of the economic slump, one US city reacted brilliantly by retooling its existing resources: Detroit, MI. Once the clear industrial powerhouse for automobile production, many of the factories that experienced severe downsizing adapted their manufacturing facilities to the wind industry, according to a joint report by the AWEA, BGA and USW(1). The report also describes significant state incentives to attract new and revitalize existing businesses, including a business group that shaves 18 months off wind production schedules. Additionally, a recent AWEA state profile for Michigan(2) outlays nearly 470 Megawatts (MW) of wind power under construction (equal to almost 200 2.5MW towers), and Michigan has nearly ten times that quantity “in the build queue”. Additionally, in the two years between the joint report AWEA's state profile, about six facilities were added to Michigan's wind manufacturing base, with each report highlighting a separate statewide RES goal of 10% and 25, by 2015 and 2025 respectively. All of this means that Michigan is quite serious about rebuilding its manufacturing roots using the wind industry, despite past troubles.
Another state has seriously pursued wind farms: Texas. Almost three times larger (according to Google) than Michigan, Texas met its 2025 RES target years ago, but that doesn't mean it's stopping. In fact, its Electric Reliability Council (as quoted in Mechanical Engineering (7)) thinks that anywhere between 17,000 and 35,000MW of new wind installations are feasible by 2032 (that's between 6,800 and 14,000 new 2.5MW turbines). Somebody's got to build that. Indeed, state profiles from AWEA again show that over 22,000 MW are in the Texas queue – more than tripling its third-quarter 2012 capacity – and turbines are added at twice Michigan's rate, with the same number of wind facilities (and growing) (3).
A Past Project And Future Farms
Texas is known for all things big, but while they're off building the largest state capacity, one of the world's biggest wind farms was installed in Oregon. Originally slated to provide 900MW from 300 turbines, the Shepherds Flat Wind Farm (4) was downgraded slightly in capacity, instead installing more turbines (10). Whether this was due to cost or surface area, more installations is more work. This flexibility indicates a competitive market, good news for domestic workers; not only because it boosts local labor, but domestic manufacturing growth means more domestic companies providing the parts: Perhaps you've heard of General Electric (5)? While Shepherds Farm opened near the end of 2012, it's important to see the history: Wind farms this size require impressive manpower, and even bigger farms are coming.
Job Losses Offset by Wind
Jeffrey Winters, an author for Mechanical Engineering (7), describes how in 2012 over 40% of new energy additions were wind, ahead of natural gas. He also shows that coal has been in sharp decline: From 2009-2012, US wind installations amounted to 30.7 GW while coal amounted to 16.7 GW (1 GW = 1,000MW). This means even more when you examine total US coal utilization, which has been dropping like a rock: 2012's utilization was at almost half of 2008' (7).
A similar examination of the British energy sector shows that massive job losses have already occurred in energy sectors like coal, gas and utilities; that hundreds of thousands more jobs will disappear in the near future, and then mentions that renewables such as wind are actually offsetting this problem (6). Considering the potential for increasingly strong job competition down the road, this is a good time to look for wind energy jobs.
Jobs in Demand: Direct
A US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report (9) offers helpful information on jobs within three phases of wind energy: Manufacturing, Development, and Operations and Maintenance (O&M). For each of these three phases, the report describes over 35 jobs: engineering from most disciplines, 13 types of general manufacturing (like welding, machinist, or production manager), scientists ranging from atmospheric to environmental, and many construction jobs. Also included are logistical analysts, lawyers, asset and land specialists, and “wind techs” who service turbines – including failure analysis, supplies ordering, and scheduling – through the turbine's warranty period, and beyond.
Ongoing Jobs – 10 Years and Beyond
The warranty period is not just an idle fact: Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM's) will typically service their equipment for 10-20 years, via their staff and procedures. Near the end of the warranty period, equipment owners (like city governments, utilities, commercial and private interests) are faced with new challenges: where to find qualified wind techs, and their aging equipment. Additionally, to obtain incentives, depreciation benefits or technology improvements, owners may decide (out of cycle) that it's time to change equipment, which renews wind jobs all over again. And one final warranty point is worth driving home: The US has been installing utility-scale wind turbines since at least the mid-90's; warranty turnover is happening all the time.
Jobs in Demand: Indirect
Wind farms, just like any other business, require secretaries, human resources, janitors, and security guards. Transportation personnel have to deliver massive parts, raw construction materials, and haul away waste. Not all of this is done on the road; some parts must travel by rail, others by water, and in fact – as the market for offshore wind farms develops – water transportation is about to become even more important to seafaring laborers.
Emerging Jobs – Offshore
While other countries have significant offshore wind developments – and US offshore potential is also large – the job market for offshore wind energy is not “there yet” because our waters are deep. But people are working on the issues: Traditional land-based wind turbines, i.e., the foundation, tower, and critical topside components, pose problems like access difficulty, larger construction and maintenance vessels, and the significant build necessary to anchor top-heavy towers to the ocean floor. All of these details are mentioned in another Mechanical Engineering article (8) comparing land-based turbines (known as horizontal-axis wind turbines, or HAWT's) with the simpler Vertical-Axis Wind Turbine – an interesting twist that may provide opportunities for industry specialization:
The VAWT – essentially a maypole with several ribbons extending in a top-to-bottom arc – has fewer components (all mounted near sea-level), is bottom-heavy, tethered to float in place, doesn't need to rotate into the wind, has much larger rotors – producing more energy – and doesn't need oversized maintenance vessels. Whether we get these – or plain old HAWT's – for US offshore farms, it's obvious we're thinking seriously about the wind capacity of domestic shores, which means additional future opportunities for workers.
Education Not Treacherous
While some jobs require specialized skills, not all require extensive prior preparation. Wind technicians can still occasionally train onsite, but as new certificate programs materialize and solidify, experience in related fields (such as electricity or mechanics) will start to be the norm. This shouldn't deter you from exploring a job, however, because the aforementioned BLS report conclusively anticipates that wind careers will “experience rapid growth”, that this growth will “be noticeable [in the hardest-hit industries]”, and that “jobs will be available [at many levels]” (9).
Current Numbers, Future Numbers
The current installed base of wind turbines is over 57GW, according to the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. These turbines are in many capacities, sizes, and ages. This trend will continue, because we're learning to stagger turbine types to dodge efficiency-robbing turbulence, studying how to make them even bigger – for weaker wind areas – and we're constantly phasing in new technologies as old equipment ends its service life.
Projections into the future return us to Jeffrey Winters (7), projecting wind energy additions through 2022...and then over the next 10 years, wind additions vary a little but mostly stabilize. Additionally, detailed wind speed charts exist for the United States, and we haven't always been building in the highest-wind areas: due to regulations, financial considerations, or just plain convenience. Perhaps someone will always be chasing these – providing pockets of new work – but it's more likely that industry will continue to develop better technologies for weak-wind areas, increasing the penetration of wind power.
A Wind Energy Career: Not A Bad Idea
If you want a job – really, a career – that's going to last you a long time, wind energy should be a serious contender. Recent history shows that this nation is serious about meeting the challenges of domestic wind energy, both on land and offshore, that we have no plans to stop anytime soon, and that industry leaders are re-employing the workforces hardest-hit by the economic downturn. No matter your skill level, you can probably find a suitable job in renewable wind energy, and the time to look into it is now.
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American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), BlueGreen Alliance (BGA), and United Steelworkers (USW). Winds of Change : A Manufacturing Blueprint for the Wind Industry . Jun. 2010: 19, 23, 27.
AWEA. Wind Energy Facts: Michigan. 18 Oct. 2012: 1-2.
AWEA. Wind Energy Facts: Texas. 18 Oct. 2012: 1-2.
Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), United States Department of Energy. “BPA Interconnection of the Proposed Shepherds Flat Wind Farm / Gilliam & Morrow Counties, Oregon.” 14 Feb. 2006. Accessed 03 Jul. 2013. <efw.bpa.gov/environmental_services/Shepherds%20Flat%20Wind%20Farm.html>.
Witkowski, Wallace. “Google, others invest $500 mln in GE wind farm”. 18 Apr. 2011. Accessed 11 Jul. 2013. <marketwatch.com/story/google-others-invest-500-mln-in-ge-wind-farm-2011-04-18-1320310>.
Wind-energy-the-facts.org. “Chapter 7: Employment. Employment in the Wind Energy Sector”. Accessed: 28 Jun. 2013. <wind-energy-the-facts.org/en/part-3-economics-of-wind-power/chapter-7-employment/>. Also: <wind-energy-the-facts.org/en/acknowledgements/>.
Winters, Jeffrey. “By the Numbers, Wind Shakes the Energy Field.” Mechanical Engineering, The Magazine of ASME. Apr. 2013: 30-31.
Engineering, Mechanical. “Trying To Catch The Wind.” Mechanical Engineering, The Magazine of ASME. Jun. 2013: 22-23. Note: Frank Peters is associate professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering at ISU.
James Hamilton and Drew Liming . “Green Jobs: Wind Energy .” Sep. 2010. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Jul. 2013: 7-18.
Power-Technology.com. “Shepherds Flat Wind Farm, Oregon, United States of America.” Accessed: 11 Jul. 2013. <power-technology.com/projects/shepherds-flat-wind-farm-oregon>.