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Wind Power: Real Energy, Real Jobs

An environmental attorney, Philip Warburg served as president of the Conservation Law Foundation from 2003 to 2009. He is the author of Harvest the Wind: America’s Journey to Jobs, Energy Independence, and Climate Stability. Visit his website at  

IMG_1930Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has been outspoken in deriding President Obama’s efforts to give wind and solar power the prominence they deserve on America’s energy agenda. “In place of real energy, Obama has focused on an imaginary world where government-subsidized windmills and solar panels could power the economy,” he wrote in a Columbus Dispatch editorial earlier this year.

It’s hard to square candidate Romney’s muscular assertions with current reality, where wind power has provided 35 percent of all new U.S. power production over the past half-decade and already accounts for 10 percent or more of the electricity generated in five U.S. states. In South Dakota, 22 percent of power generation comes from wind; Iowa produces 19 percent of its electricity from wind. Even big-oil Texas taps the wind for 8.5 percent of the electricity controlled by the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which accounts for 85 percent of the state’s electricity. And it’s worth noting that Texas consumes considerably more electric power than any other state in the Union – nearly twice as much as California.

Wind power is not simply a fantasy perpetrated by Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, as Romney would like American voters to believe. After all, it was George W. Bush who, as Texas governor, introduced the Lone Star State’s first renewable portfolio standard, setting ambitious targets for the introduction of wind power and other renewable energy sources – goals that the state has since far surpassed. And it was President George W. Bush whose Department of Energy (DOE) published a landmark report in July 2008, mapping out a pathway to achieving a fifth of America’s power from wind by 2030.

In charting a course toward 20 percent reliance on wind by 2030, the DOE did not flat-line U.S. electricity use between now and then. To the contrary, it assumed a 39 percent increase above total consumption in 2005. If we actually became a nation that valued energy conservation more than we do today, the three hundred gigawatts of installed wind power slated for 2030 could end up providing well over 20 percent of the nation’s power needs.

Under the 20% Wind Energy by 2030 scenario, manufacturing jobs directly related to producing wind turbine components and subcomponents would top 30,000 by 2021, peaking at 32,835 in 2028. While factory work would somewhat slacken thereafter, ongoing expansion in onshore and offshore wind-generating capacity as well as the need to repower aging wind plants would guarantee a continued high level of employment in the manufacturing sector. In construction, jobs would average over 70,000 a year from 2019 through 2030. And in wind farm operations, total jobs would reach 76,667 by 2030 – about 28,000 in on-site operations and another 48,000 in utility services and subcontractors. Adding them all up, DOE foresees about 180,000 new jobs per year directly linked to wind energy as the 2030 target date approaches.

0107Beyond all of the “direct” jobs in the wind energy economy, DOE also explores the “indirect” employment benefits of growing this sector. These jobs include the producers and suppliers of steel, fiberglass, and other materials that are used to build wind turbines; the companies that manufacture the parts that go into a typical turbine’s 8,000 components and subcomponents; and the providers of banking, accounting, legal, and other services to wind turbine manufacturers and wind farm contractors. These indirect jobs are expected to number about a hundred thousand annually in the years leading up to the 2030 target date. 

Finally, DOE draws an even wider circle around the “induced” job impacts resulting from consumer spending by people directly and indirectly employed in the wind energy sector. A wind turbine factory worker buys a new pair of jeans in a local store; a wind farm technician takes her family out to dinner; a crane operator stays at a local motel. The DOE team attributes another two hundred thousand jobs per year to these induced economic activities.[i]

Folding induced jobs into the assessment of wind energy benefits may go farther down the speculative road than some are ready to travel. But even setting that outer circle of employment impacts aside, we are looking at a roster that rises to more than a quarter-of-a-million direct and indirect jobs if we pursue the DOE’s 20% by 2030 ambition.

Today about 75,000 Americans are employed directly by the wind industry, though analysts warn that, if Congress allows the federal production tax credit for new wind farms to lapse at the end of this year, we will lose about 37,000 of those jobs. The production tax credit, providing 2.2 cents per kilowatt hour of wind-generated power, is costing us far less than the $4 billion-a-year that President Obama proposed cutting earlier this year from the enormous, decades-old subsidies for oil and gas. Because Congress blocked the President’s long-overdue proposal, the traditional fossil fuel subsidies remain untouched, along with massive ongoing federal support for the nuclear power industry. 

A technology commitment that advances America’s energy independence and reduces our nation’s carbon footprint while creating hundreds of thousands of new, skill-based jobs – isn’t this a path worth taking?

Photo courtesy of Philip Warburg. A version of this post appeared at CSRWire.

[i] Specific numerical projections underlying DOE’s data were provided to the author by Suzanne Tegen, Ph.D., Senior Energy Analyst, Strategic Energy Analysis Center, National Renewable Energy Laboratory.