There are still plenty of entrepreneurs who preach the benefits of wind energy. But an important byproduct of the turbine revolution – the promise of thousands of “green” jobs – is still a long way off.
In the southwest corner of Minnesota lies the community of Pipestone, a place conveniently located on the Buffalo Ridge where blow the Midwest’s best winds to drive turbines; where several years ago before the wind boom really took off, a company called the Suzlon Group announced a bold new wind turbine plant would be constructed. And indeed it was, with much fanfare. Today, however, Suzlon is laying off its remaining 110 workers in Pipestone, saying “the once-booming U.S. wind energy market has lost headway.”
How can this be in a business climate where energy renewables are hailed as the next big wave?
As recently as July 2009, a Minnesota 2020 report gushed that the wind industry stands poised to “create thousands of jobs (and) revive the economic base of many Minnesota communities hit hard by the recession.” But two weeks ago, the American Wind Energy Association said the last quarter was the worst since 2007 for wind energy installations.
There are many factors at play. Among them: a general tightening on credit, poison to any start-up industry; the absence of a long-term U.S. energy policy that truly puts green energy on the path to sustainability; too few subsidies as opposed to the billions paid out to fossil fuels; regulatory challenges; and that ever-present segment of Americans unwelcoming to the sight of turbines near the places where they live.
Data from several sources, including the U.S. Energy Information Administration, shows that wind accounted for 39 percent of new installed capacity in 2009 (coal accounted for 13 percent), but nine months into 2010 wind accounted for just 14 percent while coal measured at 39 percent.
Even so, American Wind Energy Association CEO Denise Bode says wind “is becoming an even better deal” as up-front costs go down and technology improves.
Indeed, there is no doubt that wind energy has a future. One need look no farther locally than in the Trimont area, where a wind project launched in 2004 figures to utilize nearly 200 windmill turbines stretching over thousands of acres. There is a considerable amount of investment involved, and future revenues from the enterprise are said to be quite promising.
There is a future in being green, generally. The Center for Climate Strategies and Johns Hopkins University projected 2.5 million new clean energy jobs in a July 2010 report. Another paper by the Conference of U.S. Mayors pointed to 750,000 green jobs in 2006, with a projected increase of 2.5 million by 2013.
As an industry, however, experts disagree on how much of an impact wind will make on the job front. And judging by the conflicting rhetoric, it’s difficult to ascertain just how lucrative wind might become, or how soon. Minnesota 2020, for instance, has said that a considerable amount of wind jobs could come in the manufacturing sector. Suzlon’s example, however, shows that fewer projects corresponds to fewer manufacturing jobs.
Outside of manufacturing, wind jobs are not so much in demand. One example: on the new Prairie Wind development near Minot, N.D., there are 77 turbines but the project requires just eight operations and maintenance employees, or about one for every 14 megawatts. As a job-creator, wind proponents themselves admit that coal plants put many more people to work.
Xcel Energy environmental policy manager Beth Chacone has stated, “I know the (green economy) gets a lot of press, but we’re not sure there is job creation.”
The winds of change, it appears, do not blow entirely as we wish.
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