The Job Market Is Spinning for Colorado’s New Wind Workforce
A bevy of Colorado colleges are helping the young (and not so young) to learn new trades that will help fuel the state’s wind energy revolution.
Andrew Pruitt is taking a repair lesson, 300 feet up in the air. A climbing harness keeps him steady as he works alongside his mentor, learning to fix FAA lights atop a wind turbine that’s part of an energy center in Colorado. Although the motor shuts down during maintenance, the turbine still turns slowly in the wind. The strobe light under Pruitt’s care acts as a beacon to warn off aircraft, so it’s an important component to troubleshoot. That light is just one of more than 3,000 parts in a turbine; tomorrow he’ll turn to another component of these mighty machines, which collectively power more than 185,000 homes in the central-eastern part of the state.
A turbine tower’s height once made him nervous, but Pruitt says that after the first couple of climbs, he’s grown more comfortable. The 22-year-old first attended school to learn how to repair motorcycles. But swayed by the power of a turbine, Pruitt signed up for classes at Ecotech Institute—one of nine Colorado private colleges, community colleges, universities, and other schools offering some type of wind energy education or training program. (Due in part to the field’s newness, a nationally recognized certification or license hasn’t yet been developed.)
One of Pruitt’s instructors at Ecotech was Auston Van Slyke, the school’s program director. Because of high demand, Ecotech will soon offer a nine-month certificate in wind energy, in addition to the two-year associate’s degree. “We’re building twelve to thirteen turbines a day in the United States,” Van Slyke says. “That’s a lot of new jobs and empty seats.”
Overall, wind power now employs more than 100,000 Americans who manufacture, construct, and maintain the U.S. wind turbine fleet, according to statistics the U.S. Department of Energy released in January. This is a 32 percent increase since 2015. The agency also estimates that 380,000 American wind jobs could be created by 2030.
The job Pruitt is pursuing—wind turbine service technician—is projected to be one of the fastest-growing career tracks in the United States, with a median salary of $51,050 (in 2015), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The industry’s rule of thumb: For every 10 wind turbines, one full-time worker is needed just to perform maintenance. “Most farms with 200 turbines have 20 maintenance guys on site,” Van Slyke says.
Turbines need periodic scheduled maintenance, Van Slyke says, the equivalent of giving your car a tune-up for every 3,000 miles traveled. And with enough time and experience, a technician may discover a niche, which brings higher wages. Van Slyke concentrated on manufacturers’ defects and recalls; other technicians may specialize in fixing blade failures resulting from storms and lightning, or in fiberglass or high-voltage repair.
A turbine is a complicated mix of materials and technologies, Van Slyke says, including carbon fiber, fiberglass, large drive trains, transmissions, electrical controls, and Internet connectivity (which enables online monitoring and optimization). “You have to be a jack-of-all-trades,” he says.
The students training for these varied tasks have equally varied backgrounds. Van Slyke sees many military veterans, recent high school graduates, and older workers looking to shift careers, including those moving from the oil and gas industries. Wind is an appealing career due to low risk and few injuries, and demand is high. “There’s consistently over 90 percent placement and retention,” he says. Eager employers often offer a signing bonus, good medical benefits, and tuition reimbursement.
But joining the industry also comes with challenges. Most turbines are located in rural environs, meaning employees must relocate or face long commutes. Regardless of where home is, drive times still stretch out over long distances as technicians travel between maintenance locations.
On the whole, however, Coloradans like Pruitt seem to have the stamina it will require for the industry to take root. Though the state still gets most of its energy from fossil fuels, Colorado employed 62,071 workers in the clean energy sector as of 2015, in jobs ranging from home efficiency technician to solar panel installer, according to a report from Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), a national, nonpartisan business group and an NRDC affiliate. Within that pool, 14,000 were renewable-energy jobs, with about half in wind and half in solar.
“Colorado is in the top 10 for clean energy jobs,” says Susan Nedell, E2’s Rocky Mountains advocate. When wind jobs come to rural areas—where cows may still graze beneath turbines—a stable economy follows, she notes. “It lifts up the whole town,” with tax revenue to buy fire trucks or fund the library and school system, and residents with a steady income to spend locally.
Policy is helping to drive this clean energy job growth in Colorado. The state was the first in the nation to pass a popular referendum requiring that a specific portion of its energy came from renewable sources. Wind, solar, biomass, and hydroelectric now supply 15 percent of Colorado’s total electricity, with most of that chunk (nearly 79 percent) coming from wind power.
“Wind energy and solar energy prices have dropped by 70 percent and 90 percent, respectively, in the last several years and are now cost-competitive with fossil fuels,” says Noah Long, an NRDC senior attorney. Now, Colorado is working on developing the infrastructure to support this burgeoning industry. “Putting steel in the ground to build renewables is putting folks to work in-state,” Long says.
Take, for example, the upcoming Rush Creek Wind Project being constructed by Xcel Energy, which recently completed a multicounty approval process. One of the largest wind-generating facilities in the state, the project will supply electricity to 325,000 homes from 300 turbines and 83 miles of transmission line. In total, it is slated to inject $1 billion into the region’s economy and create jobs while eliminating a million tons of carbon annually. During construction, Rush Creek will put 250 people to work, and after completion, in 2018, the project will employ up to 38 for wind farm maintenance and administration. In-state manufacturing facilities will also benefit, as they’ll produce the turbines for the 600-watt farm. Xcel Energy’s president, David Eves, notes that the project will also be good for citizens’ pocketbooks: The new farm will provide the lowest-cost energy on the Colorado grid.
As the state’s wind job market speeds up, new employees are reaping the benefits. Just look at Andrew Pruitt. Thanks to his steady, healthy income, he’s building a new home in Deer Trail, Colorado—just south of an Xcel substation that will soon connect to Rush Creek’s turbine network.
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