Made in the USA: Can Wind Energy Revive American Manufacturing?

Manufacturing a wind turbine

The wind energy industry has seen tremendous growth over the past two decades. In the United States alone, more than 52,000 utility-scale wind turbines currently account for eight percent of the country’s operating electric generating capacity.

Wind technician and solar installer are now among the fastest-growing occupations in the nation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As a result, more and more people are becoming interested in renewable energy education and career training.

This is especially true for many of the United States’ rural communities where a lot of new wind installations now appear. These communities previously lost many manufacturing jobs due to the changing economy.

“Wind jobs are unique in that they are mostly located in less populated areas of the United States,” says Auston Van Slyke, Wind Energy Technology Program Director at Ecotech Institute. “Wind turbines are unique machines in that they are so large that it doesn’t make sense to ship them; they must be manufactured where they are being built.”

Renewable Energy Jobs May Offer New Opportunities for Manufacturing Workforce

Ecotech Institute’s Wind Energy Technology Program Instructor Walter Christmas thinks wind energy jobs could offer new opportunities to those who previously worked in manufacturing.

“Manufacturing of wind turbine components is an extremely beneficial boost to communities that have lost other manufacturing jobs,” Christmas says. “Every state in America hosts either wind farms and/or component manufacturing facilities that provide jobs.”

Ecotech Institute Instructor Trent Nylander says that Pueblo, Colorado is a great example of how wind turbine manufacturing jobs could help communities.

“Once a thriving steel town in the 50s and 60s, the town slowly lost its production plants over the years and was, in a sense, dying,” Nylander says. “Then, wind turbine manufacturer Vestas opened shop with their nacelle and tower production plants, which revitalized the town.”

Van Slyke explains that manufacturing a wind turbine is a lot like building a train or ship, which means that some of the existing infrastructure and plants that went out of business can get a second life as renewable energy facilities:

“I have seen old shipyards that are now being used to build wind turbine blades in San Diego. Or an old machine shop in Chicago that is now repairing wind turbine gearboxes. And there is an old train repair shop in Aurora that is now repairing wind turbine generators instead,” Van Slyke notes.

Supply and Demand: Wind Technician Job Growth

Renewable energy jobs may be able to help revive many manufacturing towns along the Rust Belt and in rural communities in particular. However, there is a challenge. Because the industry is so new, there currently aren’t enough trained wind energy technicians to satisfy the demand for wind techs.

“A common piece of feedback we get from employers is that there aren’t enough wind technicians to fill their demand for new hires,” Christmas says.

Although still in its early stages, the influence of wind energy on America’s manufacturing sector is not insignificant. Today, American wind power serves as the nation’s largest source of renewable energy generating capacity and employs more than 100,000 wind workers in all 50 states. A recent report by Navigant Consulting estimates that, with the industry continuing to boom in the years ahead, the number of wind-related jobs will reach 248,000 by 2020.

Learn more about the day in the life of a wind turbine technician.

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