The statistics are clear: Wind energy is on the rise, with a 20 percent increase in wind energy jobs in 2016, compared to the year before. Wind infrastructure is becoming more commonplace and so are the benefits free power gives to landowners, investors and everyday Americans.
This data, gathered by the American Wind Energy Association, shows strong economic growth for the wind sector. But why aren’t we living in a free energy utopia yet?
For one thing, renewable energy commitments vary by state. Wind development companies in California are better positioned than those in many other states, for example, and it is only through policy shift and a greater public understanding of wind energy that the country can move past these obstacles.
When Policy Obstructs Progress
We asked Bryan Boatright, Wind Energy Technology instructor at the Laramie County Community College in Wyoming, to identify some of the obstacles that wind energy is facing in his state. Chief among his concerns is a $1.00/kWh tax levied by Wyoming’s pro-coal legislature.
As the only state that taxes wind energy in the U.S., Wyoming has effectively de-incentivized any wind energy expansion within its borders. This is to be expected of the largest coal producer in the United States, where powerful political coalitions work hard to protect their interests in fossil fuels.
In conditions where wind energy jobs are rising consistently on an annual basis worldwide, this can create a renewable energy “brain drain” where the most qualified workers move out of the state to work in more favorable conditions.
While this move works for individual wind energy graduates who typically receive at least four attractive job offers within a year of graduation, it ignores the local environmental issues that wind energy plays a part in solving. If all of the highest-qualified wind energy graduates were looking to work with a wind company in California, the rest of the country would fall behind — and environmental crises, unlike political ones, do not respect borders.
Professor Boatright sees conflicts of this type taking form in his students’ post-graduate job options. Qualified wind energy students are concerned about missed opportunities within the job market. Traveling wind turbine technician salaries have largely remained at a national standard while job growth has continued to push the industry towards key population centers where helpful policy is promoting greater investment in wind power.
Jobs Are Plentiful Now — Will They Always Be?
Students like Professor Boatright’s are always concerned about the long-term availability of jobs in their areas of expertise. Hunter Mack, professor of mechanical engineering for renewable energy at UMass Lowell, corroborates this concern with his own students’ experience.
According to Professor Mack, newcomers to the wind energy industry are concerned that government policies could take a toll on the research and development of wind energy technologies in the future. Wind energy projects rely as much on government infrastructure as the coal industry did in its own nascent period in American history, almost two centuries ago.
Nearly all wind energy experts agree that wind energy harnessing technologies will continue to get more efficient and cost-friendly in the future. It is only a matter of time before the economic competition provided by wind energy reaches a critical point. However, political intervention will either distance that point from our current moment in history or bring it closer — and it seems to be doing so unevenly on a state-by-state basis.
Better Education and Communication Is Key
The technological means for advancing and developing sophisticated wind energy solutions is close at hand, yet many landowners and investors are still unaware of the part they can play in this future. This is one of the concerns of Professor James D. Fitzpatrick of the Des Moines Area Community College, who foresees a need for student adaptation as they enter the wind energy workforce of tomorrow.
Professor Fitzpatrick shows that with local average wind speeds of 3.5 to 4 miles per second 30 to 40 percent of the time, wind is a secure long-term investment in his area. However, the public knows that wind speed will never hit those figures 100 percent of the time, so there will always be need for additional energy resources to complement wind power.
This perspective overlooks that actual economic gain that almost-free wind energy offers. It influences policy decisions towards energy sources that, while less effective, less efficient, and less environmentally friendly, are nonetheless preferred. However, when that 30 to 40 percent figure translates to steeply reduced energy costs for the public and profits for investors and landowners, finding reasons not to implement it becomes difficult.
However, for as long as people are unaware of those benefits or of the part they can play in addressing the challenges of wind power, the industry will remain underdeveloped. Recent graduates will continue to move towards areas and fields that serve their interests best while landowners and investors remain unaware of the financial gains they can make with wind energy.
In line with Professor Fitzpatrick’s thinking, Professor Mack agrees that once all energy stakeholders realize the power wind energy technology offers, change will come quickly. Yet it is only through increased awareness of the advantages of wind energy that decision makers at all levels of society, from landowners to investors and politicians, will clearly see their part to play in the energy paradigm offered by wind power companies.
Lead image credit: Ian D. Keating | Flickr