For clean-energy jobs, sky’s the limit

  • Outside the nacelle of a Vestas wind turbine, 300 feet in the air, Will Osborn, left and Shane Keck service a wind sensor that was out of alignment while Chris Berg works inside in Sauk Centre, Minn. Glen Stubbe—TNS

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (TNS)
Sunday, November 05, 2017

SAUK CENTRE, Minn. — Golden cornfields stretched out 24 stories below Will Osborn, the autumn 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 here — 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.

As wind and solar energy have grown, they’ve created a tide of jobs nationwide in fields from construction to manufacturing. Renewable energy jobs, most of which are in wind and solar, grew by 16 percent to around 6,200 in Minnesota alone from 2015 to 2016, according to a recent study by Clean Energy Economy Minnesota, an industry-led nonprofit.

A wind building boom is expected to continue over the next five years. 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 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. In Minnesota, six coal-fired generators — two of them quite large — are set to close over the next decade.

“Yes, there will be job losses in some of those traditional employment centers like coal plants — it’s happening now,” said Bruce Peterson, executive director of the Minnesota State Energy Center of Excellence.

The state’s community and technical colleges, which Peterson represents, have been beefing up wind and solar energy offerings.

“I think what we are seeing is an evolution,” Peterson said.

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. And 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, and a bit less in Minnesota.

Minnesota is one of the nation’s leading states for wind power, and wind made up 18 percent of the state’s electricity generation last year, up from 13 percent from 2011.

Shane Keck, another Vestas wind technician, grew up with wind energy in Lamberton, Minn. “My grandpa owned a group of wind turbines in southwest Minnesota and that sparked my interest,” he said.

Keck, 29, 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.”

Osborn said the same. The 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.

The wind farm, owned by San Diego-based Sempra Energy, opened in December with 39 turbines. Vestas, based in Denmark, manufactured the turbines used at Black Oak, and it has a crew of five there along with two Sempra workers. Vestas employs about 100 in Minnesota at almost 40 wind projects.

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, technicians with no experience start at around $19 an hour (around $40,000 annually) and range to the upper $30s per hour.

It’s 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.