United States

United States

US Special - Employment - The economic reach of a thriving sector

In the current economic climate, we are confronted with daily reminders of dwindling demand for products and escalating job losses that are impacting many American industries. Yet in this unsure time, characterised by factories closing doors and laying off workers, the wind industry continues to shine as a testimony to American innovation and manufacturing might.

 

The numbers speak for themselves. As the US economy haemorrhaged jobs in 2008, employment in the wind sector grew 70%, with around 35,000 new jobs created. A total of 85,000 people are now employed in the industry. More impressive still, the new jobs were added across myriad sectors, including manufacturing, construction, and operations. This growth supported a 60% surge in new wind capacity installation over 2007. The 8358 MW installed last year accounted for around 40% of all new electricity capacity in the US.

The wind power jobs story is also one of a continued shift toward domestic production, with nine new facilities opening across the country in 2008 and many more on the way. The job creation starts at the very beginning of the supply chain, natural resources, and continues through to the assembled turbine. The new capacity installed last year translates to around 5000 turbines, creating huge demand for both raw materials and finished components. Every utility-scale wind turbine uses around 8000 individual components and weighs 200-400 short tons, with steel accounting for around 90% of the turbine by weight.

In the past, the US wind industry has relied largely on imported components. However, there has been a shift towards domestic manufacturing in the past few years that is likely to continue. Since 2005, many of the industry's leading turbine manufacturers have opened US facilities. Of the top ten global suppliers in 2007, seven now have an American manufacturing presence - Vestas, GE Energy, Gamesa, Suzlon, Siemens, Acciona and Nordex. The other three (Enercon, Goldwind and Sinovel) do not yet sell into the US market. In addition, homegrown company Clipper Windpower has joined GE as a major domestic player in turbine production, with the two companies combined capturing 50% of the 2008 domestic market.

Domestic manufacturing for large components in particular, such as towers and blades, has increased significantly over the past several years, with the majority now produced in the US. As for the thousands of smaller and mid-sized components, while the US continues to import some, mostly from Europe, many more can now be sourced from American companies. Once again, the numbers tell the story. Between 2005 and 2008, the percentage of domestically produced components in a turbine increased from around 30% to nearly 50%. Continuing that trend, nacelle components will increasingly be produced domestically.

 

Manufacturing jobs

Well over 100 companies in the US now produce components for wind turbines, employing thousands of workers in the manufacture of parts as varied as towers, composite blades, bearings and gears. Many companies in traditional manufacturing states have retooled to enter the wind industry and produce components for the green economy.

Manufacturing sites are spread across 40 states, employing workers from the Southeast to the Steel Belt, to the Great Plains and on to the Pacific Northwest. In total, 70 manufacturing facilities have come online, been expanded or announced since January 2007. And with plans for 30 new sites announced in 2008, the trend towards domestic manufacturing will continue.

Yet employment in the wind sector spreads far beyond component production. Construction is another big growth area. Wind project construction jobs are often a blend of specialised wind industry construction companies and management that work alongside local construction companies near the wind project site. In 2008 alone, approximately 8000 construction workers were needed for the many aspects of wind farm construction. This includes those for building access roads, securing turbine foundations that typically use 900 tons of steel-reinforced concrete, erecting towers made of up to 300 tons of steel plate and driving massive cranes to secure 100-ton nacelles and rotors to towers. Given that new wind projects came online in over 25 different states in 2008, these construction jobs were widely distributed across the country.

Another area that has seen significant jobs growth is operation and maintenance (O&M). The US now has over 25,000 MW of wind in the ground, all of which must be operated and maintained. Wind turbines are massive and complex machines and skilled workers are needed to keep them running for 20 years or more. In 2008, approximately 800 "wind technicians" joined 1600 workers already in long-term, full-time jobs looking after the nation's wind turbine fleet. In addition, the wind projects completed in 2008 were possible only with the participation of thousands of other highly skilled workers across varied professions, involved in areas such as site assessment, permitting, siting, developing, financing and interconnection.

 

Strong net gains

Of course, the wind industry is not entirely insulated from a declining economy and in 2008 some companies did announce job losses. These have largely been caused by short-term challenges, such as increased difficulty financing projects as a result of the credit crisis and the devaluation of the production tax credit - companies need to be earning a profit and paying taxes in order to want such credits. Still, the good news is unequivocal: Net growth in wind power has remained in the double digits, even in the face of an economic downturn. Across the US economy in 2008, nearly 2.6 million jobs were lost. Wind industry growth alone, of course, cannot single-handedly counteract the losses, but it does counter the negative trend. And better still, some companies that had to make workers redundant are already hiring some of them back.

While 35,000 jobs is clearly nothing to sneeze at, more can be achieved. The 2008 numbers serve as a telling indicator of potential. Last year the wind industry demonstrated its remarkable potential for both generation capacity growth and job creation. Investing in the wind industry creates a new engine for the nation's economy, driving growth in manufacturing, supporting construction jobs, and promoting economic development. Its potential cannot be ignored.

The wind industry can and will continue to grow, given a stable policy environment that levels the playing field for all generating sources. Legislators have the power to ensure continued expansion of wind power and jobs though a national renewable electricity standard and legislation to create a national transmission system that accesses the nation's vast renewable energy resource. As shown in a 2008 Department of Energy report, effective policies to help the US reach 20% wind penetration by 2030 could create at least 500,000 jobs. The industry is ready and willing to make that happen.

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