Project Development, Wind Power

Eight Careers in Wind Farm Development

Currently about 85,000 people are employed in the wind energy industry, up from 50,000 last year. These jobs are very diverse, and include turbine manufacturing, wind farm development, wind farm construction, and turbine maintenance.

Developing an industrial-scale wind farm requires a team of people with a variety of abilities. Here’s a look at some of the jobs involved as well as the skills necessary for this line of work.

Project Developer

This person brings together numerous aspects of a wind farm development. “I oversee land acquisition, engineering, permitting, and turbine micrositing decisions,” says Curt Bjurlin, Senior Wind Developer for EcoEnergy LLC, when describing his role.

A person in this role must be able to wear many hats and be very organized.  “In any given day, I might be reviewing legal documents, meeting with landowners, working on permitting or securing contracts.  Project developers also negotiate with potential investors and power purchasers,” says Bjurlin.

It is therefore crucial for project developers to be effective working with a variety of people.  “It’s important to have strong communications skills, be an active listener and be willing to ask questions of people you are in a conversation with,” says Taylor Henderson, Project Developer for Renewable Energy Systems America Inc

“I think the core skills for a developer are an ability to see the big picture, to focus on the complete project and not individual portions to the exclusion of others,” says Bjurlin.  In addition, Bjurlin considers an understanding of finance, agriculture, engineering, planning, permitting, renewable energy, policy and law to be important, although it is rare for someone to have knowledge in every area.

GIS Specialist

The creation of a wind farm requires a wealth of geographic information for effective planning.  A Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialist provides much of this material through maps of site characteristics, such as land parcels boundaries, transmission lines, infrastructure, environmentally sensitive areas, land cover, wind resources, turbine micrositing and topography. These maps are used in every step of planning from energy analysis through construction.

GIS offers the level of sophistication necessary to incorporate numerous data layers. “GIS is our preferred mapping tool,” says Diane Reinebach, Senior Energy Specialist for RMT Inc.  “It can take so many layers from many of different sources. This is very important, not only in the planning phase, but also in the engineering and construction phases.  It’s crucial to have one base tool to put all the pieces in and that’s GIS.”

Strong computer skills and knowledge of GIS software are essential for this position.  As a member of the development team, background knowledge of wind farm development is useful. “I’ve had the most success working with GIS specialists in our teams who not only have an understanding of what they do from a technical aspect, but also the development process and how we successfully complete of a wind farm,” says Henderson. 

Meteorological Tower Services

Wind energy data needs to be collected and analyzed to determine the wind resources of a given site.  This involves erecting a tower with anemometers, wind vanes, a data logger and a device to transmit the collected information. A standard tower is 198 feet and instruments are typically placed at various heights at a specific orientation. 

Meteorological tower installation and maintenance is not an easy task- technicians must work under extreme conditions and stay mentally sharp.  Jason Vidas, owner of Pioneer WindWorks seeks employees who are physically fit, able to work in all weather conditions, and stay mentally strong during long, physical days.  Attention to detail is essential, as instruments need to be placed and documented with high accuracy to ensure quality data.  A background in engineering as well as computer, math and technical skills are desirable.

The data collected from meteorological towers is the foundation for the energy and financial analysis of the potential wind farm.  As the wind industry advances, so does the need for highly accurate information.

“I’ve definitely seen standards improve dramatically, both on towers that we have put up and towers that other companies have put up,” says Vidas.  “The field is maturing and that is part of the maturing process.”  

Wind Energy Analyst

Meteorological towers provide a large quantity of raw data that needs to be analyzed to assess the wind resources of a site. Desired information is frequently extrapolated from a data set, often with help from software.

Once a suitable wind resource is determined, turbine selection and layout can occur.  Turbines are designed for different wind conditions, so careful selection is important to maximize the energy output of a wind farm. The layout of a wind farm must optimize productivity, minimize construction costs and adhere to environmental restrictions.

“We develop a layout for wind farms based on many variables including characteristics of the turbine, the height, the blade and site conditions,” says RMT’s Reinebach.  “We do that as a team effort.  It isn’t just a meteorological study.”

A job in the energy assessment field draws on a variety of skills according to Reinebach.  She finds her background in mechanical engineering helpful for understanding turbine output and wind loads that affect structural integrity of a turbine.  Her 15 years of experience working with an electric utility boosts her understanding of customer needs.  Computer skills, a meteorological background, an ability to work with a large data set and an understanding of fluid dynamics are all beneficial.

Real Estate Manager

Wind turbines are frequently sited on parcels where the wind rights are leased from the landowner.  A long-term contract must be created that covers many aspects of the project, such as compensation, placement of turbines, access roads and the location of electric collection and transmission systems.  Financial institutions and title companies also have an interest in the wind energy development agreement as it impacts mortgaged property.  Communicating and organizing such matters typically falls under the role of the real estate manager.

Mike Powers, President of Local Productions LLC Wind, a consulting company, explains that on a typical day he spends “the better part of the day on the phone answering and responding to questions about wind energy development agreements, payments, terms, the clauses and the project itself.  Often it involves meetings with land owners, their legal counsel, local elected officials and negotiating the terms for the development.” 

As with other aspects of wind farm development, the standards are increasing due to advancement of the industry and the financial climate. “With the tightening of credit, it has become extremely important for projects to have a very high level of diligence for development agreements,” explains Powers.  “There have been a number of projects that were relying on lower standards for their leases and easements.  With the competition for scarce credit, they found that they had difficulty attracting investors to those projects.”

Like other aspects of wind farm development, a variety of skills and abilities are useful.  “A thorough understanding of all aspects of project development, ability to present, negotiate and obtain agreements and an understanding of contract law and real estate agreements are all important,” says Powers. 

His background includes heavy construction, experience with landowners and developers in real estate transactions, coupled with a decade of serving in the Wisconsin Legislature on the Utilities Committee establishing energy policy including Wisconsin’s first renewable portfolio standard.

Electrical Engineer

A wind farm can’t be created without input from electrical engineers.  Their initial role involves identifying transmission constraints and determining the cost to overcome them.

“When we find a new potential wind energy site, one of the first things we investigate is if there is an existing transmission infrastructure and it’s ability to take new power,” says EcoEnergy’s Bjurlin.  “That is very important.  You can’t have a wind project without having an outlet for the power generated by the turbines.”

The input of an electric engineer is also useful when determining the optimum layout and quantity of turbines.  “As the project moves forward, the electrical engineer becomes very involved in the design of the collection system that ties the turbines together, and the transmission lines and substations that bring the power to market,” he says.

A degree in electrical engineering, a background in wind energy and an ability to work with a team are essential.

Financial Analyst

The role of the financial analyst is to determine which proposed wind farms are financially sound.  “The financial analyst must understand and be able to translate various inputs, such as capital costs, operation & maintenance costs, land lease costs, taxes, wind resource potential, future power prices and project risks into a robust and defensible pro-forma model,” says Ari Pribadi, Senior Vice President of Marathon Capital LLC, an investment bank that is active in the wind sector.

Wind developers provide a lot of this information.  “You have to have a healthy auditors’ skepticism to push back on assumptions that are coming from the development team,” says Dan Rustowicz, Chief Manager for RedWind Consulting

Rustowicz points out that, “You only read about the projects that successfully achieve commercial operation.”  He says that only one in three proposed projects are actually developed, adding that some developers have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into a project before realizing that it is not financially sound.

Under the current economic climate, financial analysts need to be even more diligent than before. “Banks are more conservative now as to technology choices and are really pressure testing the financial model,” says Rustowicz.  “If the model is not tight, you will lose credibility.”

In addition to an MBA, Marathon Capital’s Pribadi also finds his power plant design engineering background an asset.  Rustowicz earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting and has an MBA.  He finds an ability to comprehend finance theory and concepts, and strong interpersonal and research skills to be important qualities for a financial analyst. 

Construction and More

Once a wind farm moves into the construction phase, more employment opportunities are created. Currently Texas, Iowa, California, Minnesota and Washington are the leading states for wind energy capacity and wind farm development. However, although construction jobs of course need to be onsite, wind farm development jobs are not always based in the area where the wind farms are built.

Sarah Lozanova is passionate about the new green economy and renewable energy. Her experience includes work with small-scale solar energy installations and utility-scale wind farms. She earned an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and is a co-founder of Trees Across the Miles, an urban reforestation initiative.