The fastest growing jobs in the country are solar panel installers and wind turbine service technicians, a fact that clean energy advocates use as evidence of a growing sector and the economic upside of transitioning away from fossil fuels.
But in Minnesota, the rise of clean energy isn’t always resulting in new jobs for Minnesotans – at least when it comes to building wind projects. A report released Thursday by the Minnesota and North Dakota chapter of the Laborers’ International Union of North America says wind developers heavily rely on traveling workers, often from other states, even though there’s been an uptick in local hiring for the construction jobs this year.
Lucas Franco, the LIUNA branch’s research manager, says workers from states like Texas, Utah and California are often cheaper and can make up the bulk of a project in Minnesota. In-state residents or workers living within 150 miles of a major wind farm in Pipestone County accounted for 32 percent of construction hours worked, for example. Preliminary research done by LIUNA also suggests solar developers often lean on out-of-state workers for construction, Franco said.
“It’s a big concern for us, particularly in the context of this moment, of our energy infrastructure transition that we’re in,” he said. “A lot of clean energy advocates are trying to build popular support for new wind and solar projects, and I think that’s hard to do when folks in the conventional energy sector are losing their work and not necessarily finding work building wind farms or solar farms.”
Franco’s LIUNA has argued that using in-state workers boosts local economies more because those workers spend more in the area and use local health care along with other benefits. (They’re also more likely to be union workers.)
The union has lobbied state lawmakers to create a stronger preference for local workers in carbon-cutting energy regulations being considered at the Capitol. So far, the concept has some bipartisan support, even if debate over the larger regulatory policy governing how the state Public Utilities Commission approves projects, known as “clean energy first,” has not been settled.
At a legislative hearing last month, Steve Kelley, commissioner of the state Department of Commerce, said the administration of DFL Gov. Tim Walz believes the switch to carbon-free energy “has to be a just transition that recognizes existing power plants employ hundreds of skilled workers in a variety of jobs.”
“And clean energy first recognizes the community benefits of local hiring and jobs,” Kelley said.
Survey says: more wind on the horizon
LIUNA first researched local hiring for wind projects in 2018, and found less than 20 percent of Minnesota’s wind energy construction workforce was local. The numbers have improved to more than 50 percent in 2019, numbers the union estimated by using public data, field research and interviews. (Typically, local workers are defined by state regulators and others as a Minnesota resident or someone who lives within 150 miles of a project.)
“What we found was that there has been substantial progress,” Franco said.
That change, Franco said, was likely due to a mix of new efforts by the Public Utilities Commission to require some developers to give quarterly reports on their workforce and organized advocacy by labor unions, power companies and others to promote local workers. Major projects, including Xcel Energy’s Blazing Star 1 and 2 and Tenaska’s Nobles 2 – which will supply Minnesota Power – plan to use local workers.
While Franco said projects in remote areas or ones that need specialized employees often use traveling workers, in southern Minnesota’s burgeoning wind industry there’s a “large pool of skilled and experienced wind farm workers” that could be employed.
“Additionally, many wind farm construction jobs can be done by workers with little to no previous construction experience,” Franco said.
The LIUNA report says wind projects ready for development or near construction could create as many as 2,000 construction jobs, and the clean energy sector shows no signs of slowing. Industry players like Xcel continue to say wind and solar energy will grow as power companies work to retire coal plants and other fossil fuel sources.
For its report, LIUNA looked at 10 big wind projects in the pipeline and found they would bring an extra $41 million in local economic benefits if the workforce was between 50 to 70 percent local instead of 10 to 30 percent local. When including “fringe benefits,” such as health care, training and vacation, LIUNA estimated a majority of local workers could bring $62 million extra into local economies.
A debate over ‘clean energy first’
The LIUNA report comes as state lawmakers are debating how much government should intervene to speed up a transition to a carbon-free power grid.
Republicans, who control the state Senate, have blocked DFL efforts to require power companies make their energy carbon free by 2050. Some in the GOP have been more open to clean-energy-first regulations that would make it tougher for the state Public Utilities Commission to approve new fossil fuel projects over carbon-free ones.
But many Republicans and some Democrats have questioned how strict government should be since utilities are already moving toward cleaner energy, prompted by existing state law and the dropping price of solar and wind.
Xcel Energy, for example, says it plans to go carbon-free by 2050 and retire coal-fired power plants much earlier than previously expected.
While DFLers contend new regulations can help encourage the growing clean-energy sector and shift the state off coal and gas in the face of climate change, Xcel and some Republicans also worry strict new rules could make it harder to keep reliable energy from nuclear or fossil fuel power during extreme circumstances – even if battery storage for wind and solar improve.
Rick Evans, an Xcel lobbyist, told lawmakers at the hearing that engineers say “when we have things like the polar vortex and high heat days, storage isn’t going to cut it.”
“We’re going to have to have something because the wind can’t blow and sometimes the sun doesn’t shine and we’re going to have to have something to keep the energy flowing,” Evans said.
Political fights over the expansion or continuation of nuclear power persist as well.
There is less debate over legislation for using local workers. A Republican version of a clean energy first bill introduced at the Legislature this year by Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, would allow utilities to pass on costs to customers for making efforts to use local workers in the construction of new energy projects. DFLers have offered similar measures.
That doesn’t mean every lawmaker is on board with the idea. Sen. David Osmek, a Mound Republican who chairs the Senate’s Energy and Utilities Finance and Policy Committee, said he hadn’t taken a firm position on whether to include a local-labor preference inside a clean energy first bill and said it’s “worthy of a discussion.”
But he also told MinnPost “if local labor is more expensive than other sources of labor, that does drive up the costs on the projects, which would then impact the rate payers and the people who are building out these facilities.” Osmek has consistently voiced concern at the cost for customers and utilities of the state’s community solar garden program and other energy policy.
Still, Franco, the LIUNA researcher, said he has seen “growing frustration” with some wind farm projects that result in few jobs for communities where they’re built, particularly in southern Minnesota.
And while the job of wind technician – among the fastest growing occupations in the nation – isn’t tied to construction, building wind farms can help pave the way for becoming a wind tech. A preference for local workers could help facilitate more Minnesotans getting jobs as solar installers or wind techs, Franco said.
“We want to make sure that the industry continues to thrive and that we build that popular public support by prioritizing putting local folks to work,” he said.
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