For Clean-Energy Jobs, Sky’s the Limit

By: Mike Hughlett

Outside the naselle of a Vestas wind turbine,300 ft in the air, Wil Oasborn, left and Shane Keck work on a wind sensor that was out of alignment, while Chris Berg works inside in Sauk Centre, Minn. The job of wind technician is the fastest growing profession in the country.

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.


California Set to Eclipse Renewable Energy Target

By: Peter Miller

California has consistently set the bar high when it comes to climate action, and in the case of renewable energy, the state has consistently over-performed. The latest report from the California Public Utilities Commission shows that major utilities have already met or will soon exceed the state’s renewable energy target of 33 percent clean electricity by 2020. In fact, the utilities forecast that on an aggregated basis they will meet the 2030 target of 50 percent clean energy by 2020.

With this decade’s targets already in the bag and 2030’s targets a decade ahead of schedule, California is ready to move the bar again. Come January, the legislature will have a historic opportunity, in Senate Bill 100 (SB 100), to set a target of 100 percent clean electricity by 2045. Given California’s track record of bold climate action and achievement, there’s no reason to doubt that California can eliminate carbon pollution from electricity by mid-century.

California’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), one of the most ambitious in the country, sets a series of targets for the amount of clean, renewable electricity utilities should sell. Since first passing the standard in 2002, the state legislature has successfully kept the RPS moving forward as intended. The existing standard of 33 percent renewables by 2020 was set in 2011; an extension to 50 percent by 2030 was set in 2015. According to the CPUC report, major utilities will easily exceed that 2020 target and are forecasting reaching 50 percent by 2020.

The RPS has also helped fuel reductions in the price of renewable electricity, allowing utilities to meet their goals ahead of schedule and under budget. Between 2008 and 2016, the price utilities paid for solar energy dropped 77 percent. In a similar time period, the prices of wind contracts reported to the CPUC have gone down 47 percent.

SB100 is well-positioned to extend this track record of success. And there’s no better time than now for serious climate action. As communities struggle to recover from this year’s unprecedented forest fires, and the Trump Administration continues to walk backward on climate, people want to see California take the lead.

The benefits from California’s climate laws have been far-reaching. Green energy is one of the fastest growing jobs sectors of the economy. The money raised from charging polluters for their pollution is helping create jobs in low-income communities, such as planting trees in degraded parks, and providing energy-efficient housing for low-income Californians. SB 100 will keep California on track to achieve its long-term carbon goals and will also help improve air quality in disadvantaged communities across the state.

SB100 is a bold plan. Considering that California has successfully implemented all its renewable standards to date, ahead of schedule and under budget, it’s a sensible plan, too. By moving forward with 100 percent clean electricity, the legislature can give a clear signal to the market that California will continue to walk a low-carbon path, and to California citizens that a future of cleaner air and safer climate is within reach.


Costa Rica’s Electricity Has Run Entirely on Renewables For 300 Days in 2017

(Dennis Tang/Flickr)

A new record, with weeks to go before the year is up.

By: Peter Dockrill

Costa Rica has done it again. In January, the Central American country announced it had powered its electricity for a stunning 250 days in 2016 without burning fossil fuels. Now its 2017 effort has already eclipsed that feat – and it’s still only November.

So far this year, Costa Rica has clocked up 300 days where 100 percent of its electricity generation came from renewable energy sources – no small accomplishment for a nation comprised of some 5 million people.

According to figures provided by Costa Rica’s National Centre for Energy Control, 99.62 percent of the country’s electricity production is now generated from five renewable sources.

Leading the charge is hydropower, which provides 78.26 percent of Costa Rican electricity, followed by wind (10.29 percent), geothermal energy (10.23 percent), biomass and solar (0.84 percent), and hydrocarbons (0.38 percent).

Together, these sources have powered Costa Rica for 300 days in 2017 as of November 18, besting the nation’s personal record set in 2015, in which the country relied on green energy for 100 percent of its electricity for 299 days.

When renewable energy sources are unavailable, the Costa Rican grid defaults to a thermal backup to generate power, but this year it hasn’t had to resort to that measure since May 1, meaning its enjoyed a consecutive streak of more than 200 days relying solely on renewables for electricity.

The consecutive run marks the latest in a series of impressive renewable streaks from Costa Rica, which notched up 76-day and 75-day stretches in 2016 and 2015 respectively.

It’s important to note that the figures only pertain to electricity generation. Costa Rica still uses fossil fuels for petrol-based vehicles, and for things like gas heating of buildings.

But compared to most other countries in the world, it’s still a shining example of how renewable sources can be leveraged to shoulder the burden of all (or almost all) the electricity demands of an entire nation.

“It really is time to debunk the myth that a country has to choose between development on the one hand and environmental protection, renewables, quality of life, on the other,” the founder of renewable energy initiative group Costa Rica Limpia, Monica Araya, said in a 2016 TED talk.

Of course, as far as countries go, Costa Rica is relatively tiny, and its environmental benefits – an abundance of rainfall – are primarily what keep its hydropower sector booming along.

But as for the argument this somehow means Costa Rica possesses an essential or unique advantage in terms of renewable opportunities that other nations don’t have, Araya says it’s simply not true.

“It is not just good luck. It is also an ability to think in the long term,” she told Yale Environment 360 earlier in the year.

“The story could have been different. It could have been the story of any developing country that goes for the short-term option. I think the underpinning rationale that shaped some of the decisions that now have paid off – for example, non-fossil fuel electricity generation, the creation of national parks – was the ability to think in the long term.”

That long-term view is exactly what the rest of the world needs to think about right now, with CO2 emissions and global temperatures still steadily rising towards an uncertain future.

With that in mind, it’s important to take note of what Costa Rica is doing here – their success can be ours too. We just have to want it badly enough.


Battery Stores Solar Energy for Heating Later

By: Tim Sandle

Boston – Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a remarkable battery that can capture solar energy and then store the energy to be used as heat at a later point in time. The energy is released on exposure to light.

Image: Matt Harding

The application of the battery could be of use to rural areas or in the developing world where access to electricity is limited. Furthermore, the technology may also appeal to be people in mire developed areas who simply wish to reduce their carbon continuation by cutting down on the amount of electricity they use.

A further application would be at times of national emergency, for times when power is lost as the result of a hurricane, flood or earthquake.

The technology behind the battery is a chemical composite that will only release stored energy when it comes into contact with light of the ultraviolet wavelength. The battery aspect of the design allows the energy to be stored. The chemical composite is made from fatty acids. These function as phase changing materials; the acids are twined with an organic compound that responds to light.

This arrangement melts when heated like normal; however, when exposed to light the material remains melted. When a second light pulse activates the compound this triggers the acids to return to their pre-heated solid state, which releases thermal energy.

In practice, the battery could collect energy that would otherwise be wasted, such as from heating an office or operating a piece of machinery in a factory, for later use.

This leads to a concept for energy consumption whereby energy collection is decentralized from a supply grid and an alternative means of generation is produced. If successful and manufactured on a commercial scale this type of technology could significantly disrupt the operations of energy supply companies.

Speaking with the website Inverse about the technology, the lead researcher Professor Jeffrey Grossman said: “There are so many applications where it would be useful to store thermal energy in a way lets you trigger it when needed.”

The researcher goes on to explain that the energy storage and release design could simply be the starting point of new methods for capturing and using energy. Other phase changing materials could store energy when exposed to heat and turn into liquids.

The research findings are published in journal Nature Communications. The peer-reviewed paper is titled “Optically-controlled long-term storage and release of thermal energy in phase-change materials.”


Transparent Solar Panels Slated to Innovate Green Energy

Researchers developed transparent solar panels that will turn every window into a power source: here’s how they did it.

Solar panels have become commonly associated with the image of large black squares covering an expansive landscape. But the latest advancement in solar panel technology indicates this could soon change, as a team of researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) created a fully transparent solar concentrator in 2014. The breakthrough gave way to the first-ever transparent solar panels.

The Transparent Solar Panel Team

The team was led by Richard Lunt, Endowed Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering and Material Science at MSU. His company, Ubiquitous Energy, an MIT startup he cofounded, has developed the completely transparent solar panels.

While transparent solar panels have a way to go before making it to market, there is a lot of excitement over this development and the potential to improve solar energy as we know it.

How it Works

As ExtremeTech’s Jamie Lendino explained it, the way a solar panel works has made it essentially impossible for transparent solar panels to exist. considering photovoltaic solar cells produce energy by absorbing sunlight and turning it into electricity. This means that in order for a solar panel to work it needs to be visible enough to absorb light, which would not happen with transparent material because the light would just pass through it.

Addressing the Challenge

To realistically address this challenge, the team at MSU decided to change the way solar panels absorb light by creating what they call a transparent luminescent solar concentrator (TLSC).
TLSC uses organic salts to absorb any infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths of the solar spectrum. Once it harnesses infrared light, its luminescent glow is directed to the edge of the glass.
With traditional solar panels, the solar cells frame the panel of the main material. Similarly, the TLSC design has thin strips of solar cells lining the edge of the glass, where they can convert solar energy to electricity.

Transparent Solar Panels for Renewable Energy

Transparent solar panels would be a total game changer in the reusable energy industry. Ubiquitous Energy and the team at MSU are both confident that the technology can be used on anything from mobile devices to large industrial and commercial applications. Additionally, the team believes that it will be possible to keep this technology both affordable and attainable.

A Plan for Scalability

Lendino writes that as of 2015, the TLSC’s efficiency was around 1 percent, which the team thinks can be scaled up to 10 percent once productions begins. Non-transparent luminescent concentrators max out at seven percent. These differences, while small, can add up quickly when considering how many transparent solar panels would be needed per house or building.

The Challenges

One of the biggest drawbacks to solar panels has long been their bulky nature. This would change with the mass production of transparent solar panels made from sheets of glass and plastic.

“It opens a lot of area to deploy solar energy in a non-intrusive way,” said Lunt. “It can be used on tall buildings with lots of windows or any kind of mobile device that demands high aesthetic quality like a phone or e-reader. Ultimately we want to make solar harvesting surfaces that you do not even know are there.”