By: Mike Hughlett
Farm fields stretched out 24 stories below Will Osborn, the landscape dotted with silos and farmhouses.
Of course, he didn’t have much time to gaze. Planted atop a wind turbine — one of a few dozen at his work site in Sauk Centre, Minnesota — Osborn was diagnosing a weather sensor.
Osborn’s job, wind technician, is the fastest-growing occupation in the nation. 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.
“I do what pays the bills, and I looked at what was happening and will be happening for the next 30 years, and wind maintenance seemed win-win,” said Osborn, who works for Vestas, a global wind-energy giant.
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.
“We have more solar employers coming to us than graduates,” he said.
Clean-energy jobs on rise
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.
Median annual pay reported at $52,260
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.
At Vestas in Minnesota, where Osborn works, technicians with no experience start at around $19 an hour (around $40,000 annually) and range to the upper $30s per hour.
Osborn, a 43-year-old Nebraska native, served 12 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, and afterward got a wind turbine technical degree from a community college. He’s been working for Vestas since 2011 and is the company’s lead technician at the Black Oak wind farm near Sauk Centre.
Shane Keck, 29, another Vestas wind technician, got a two-year degree in wind technology in 2008 from an Iowa community college, landing a job just a week after graduation. “It’s definitely a career for me,” he said.
MATC recently suspended entry into its wind energy technology certificate program, but that’s not a sign that employment in wind energy is likely to wane, according to MATC Associate Dean Randy Way.
Rather, the industry has become large enough for the traditional division of labor that comes with large-scale commercial production, he said, with iron workers putting up towers and electricians installing the wiring.
Those who want to work exclusively on wind projects in south-central Wisconsin aren’t likely to find enough work, but can if they’re willing to travel the country, Way said.
Being a wind technician is a physical job. To reach their workplace, Keck and Osborn climb a 262-foot ladder inside a hollow tower. Some Vesta towers at other wind farms are even taller — 489 feet, or 45 stories.
At a tower’s top is the nacelle, a cramped room housing the turbine’s gear box and loads of electrical equipment. It’s a sauna in the summer, an icebox in the winter.
There’s outdoor work, too. On a recent day, Keck and Osborn flipped the ceiling hatches and climbed onto the nacelle’s roof, tethering themselves with safety ropes. Their mission: to synchronize a weather sensor with a manual anemometer and a wind vane.
“I’d go stir crazy working in a factory all day,” Osborn said.
State Journal reporter Chris Rickert contributed to this report.