By John Hensley, Deputy Director of Industry Data Analysis, AWEA
American wind power has reached a historic milestone: it is now the largest source of renewable energy in the U.S. by installed generating capacity, with enough nameplate capacity to power 24 million American homes. Wind’s growth has brought enormous benefits to the economy, sped up the path to energy independence and revitalized U.S. manufacturing. Here’s a look at how we got here.
Wind Power Drives Job Growth
Over 100,000 American workers now have wind energy jobs. These well-paying positions are spread across all 50 states, meaning your state has wind energy jobs even if it doesn’t have a wind farm. That’s because over 25,000 workers at more than 500 U.S. factories build wind turbines and related parts.
Many of these jobs are in the Rust Belt and interior of the country, bringing new opportunities to the areas where they are needed most. For example, Ohio leads the nation in wind manufacturing with over 60 plants, while Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan boast 26 a piece. Meanwhile, in Texas, the country’s leader in installed wind capacity with over 20,000 megawatts (MW), 38 factories churn out wind parts and there are over 22,000 wind jobs.
For some communities, new opportunities could not have come at a better time. Consider Newton, Iowa, once dubbed the “washing machine capital of the world.” However, the town’s washing machine plants eventually closed and shipped jobs overseas, an enormous problem in a place where a huge portion of residents worked in the washing machine manufacturing plants. But, robust wind energy growth in Iowa soon closed the employment gap. Two new wind factories moved in, one into part of Maytag’s old plant, and brought hundreds of new jobs.
“It’s almost like hitting the lottery,” says Chaz Allen, former Newton mayor and current Iowa state senator. “These companies have stepped up and hired up to a thousand people between the two companies.”
That’s a big deal for a town of less than 20,000 people.
Jobs also flow to rural America. Over 99 percent of utility-scale wind farms are built in rural areas, and technicians are needed to service and operate the country’s 52,000-strong fleet of turbines. So it makes sense that a wind turbine technician is by far America’s fastest growing jobs, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Today, wind project operators employ over 9,800 wind techs and are actively seeking additional help to keep their fleet in top condition.
“I was in the coal mining industry for 16 years. The coal market was on the decline. I was tired of the traveling from job to job – they were never close home,” said Donald Hostetler, a wind technician who works for Senvion at the Twin Ridges wind farm in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. “I started seeing all these wind turbines going up all around my area and I thought: ‘this is the future’. I was lucky enough to get a job in the wind industry and I am proud to contribute to the production of clean energy.”
Many of America’s 100,000 wind jobs also go to the men and women serving our country. The U.S. wind industry employs veterans a rate 50 percent higher than the average industry, offering them good career opportunities when they transition out of active duty.
“I used to do something amazing when I was in the Coast Guard, and I kind of missed that when I was out working at other jobs,” said Casey Whitt, a product specialist working for Power Climber Wind in Seattle. “Taking this job, I regained everything I had lost from doing the Coast Guard.”
Rural Economies Get a Wind Energy Boost
Wind’s growth also drives investment into rural economies in unmatched ways. To date, it has attracted $158 billion in new investment. Over the last decade, wind has drawn private investment at a higher yearly average than Major League Baseball or National Football League revenue.
Again, these resources tend to go where they help the most—70 percent of wind projects are built in low-income counties. Wind projects in these counties have driven more than $111 billion of that private investment.
Rural America uses wind project contributions to strengthen its communities. Added property taxes or sales and state taxes and other wind farm revenue provides new resources to fix roads, buy ambulances or improve schools.
“It’s been a game-changer for us,” said Jeff Snyder, superintendent of the Lincolnview School District in Van Wert, Ohio. With added wind farm revenues, his district was able to provide every student with a computer, add wifi access to all its buildings, and offer new college-level courses, among other things. “With this opportunity with wind, it’s in our backyard, it’s incredible to see, it has been the number one economic development we’ve ever had.”
Wind energy has also become an important new cash crop for America’s farmers and ranchers, with some calling it their “new corn.” That’s because landowners receive $245 million every year for hosting turbines. They can count on this revenue rain or shine, or when commodity prices fluctuate. For many, it’s the difference between continuing a multi-generation tradition and having to sell off the land.
“We can always count on this [lease payments], but with farming you never know from year to year if you have a crop or not,” said Twane Reker, a third-generation farmer in Peetz, Colorado. “Farming right now is very tight, margins are very thin, and of course extra income always helps.”
What’s Next for U.S. Wind Power
Wind’s growth prospects will stay strong in the years ahead, with tens of thousands of additional jobs on the way as a result. Wind remains on track with DOE’s Wind Vision to supply 10 percent of the country’s electricity by 2020.
Locally, many states already far exceed that amount. Iowa and Kansas generate over 30 percent of their electricity using wind power, and 40 percent may be in the near-future for both. Oklahoma, South Dakota and North Dakota create over 20 percent of their electricity with wind, and overall 13 states exceed 10 percent. With North Carolina’s first wind farm recently coming online, 41 states plus Guam and Puerto Rice now have utility-scale wind projects.
These states didn’t need to sacrifice affordable electricity to hit these wind generation marks. Iowa has among the lowest rates in the country, sitting far below the national average. The Business Council for Sustainable Energy’s new fact book found Americans spend less for their energy today than at any point in history.
More is on the way too. The fourth quarter of 2016 saw the second-highest quarterly amount of new wind installations in U.S. history, with 6,743 MW coming online, putting the country’s total over 82,000 MW. Another 18,000 MW remain under construction or in the advanced stages of development.
Fortune 500 companies play an increasingly-important role in driving this growth. Recent high-profile buyers include The Home Depot, GM and Amazon. Google expects its worldwide operations will be powered by 100 percent renewable energy in 2017, and wind will supply 95 percent of that electricity.
Why are these companies making these choices? Because they make sense for their bottom lines.
“This pursuit of renewable energy benefits our customers and communities through cleaner air while strengthening our business through lower and more stable energy costs,” said GM Chairwoman and CEO Mary Barra, speaking about her company’s 100 percent renewable energy goal.
Importantly, wind deals are not only cost-effective, they offer stability and the ability to plan for the long-term. When a company signs a power purchase agreement to buy wind, they know exactly what electricity costs will be in five, 10 or 15 years, because there is no fuel price volatility with wind.
“Companies are investing in sustainability, not because they’re making a political statement,” said the president of Ceres recently, “but because they have a fiduciary duty to protect shareholders and make money.”
Transmission Will Play an Important Role
Updating America’s electricity grid to meet 21st century needs will play a crucial role in helping wind power reach its full potential. Building transmission to carry wind-generated electricity from the windiest sites to population centers where demand is highest will give more families and businesses access to low-cost, clean energy.
Researchers find these projects more than pay for themselves. For example, Americans could save up to $47 billion every year from improved transmission, according to a recent report from the Brattle Group.
Continuing these gains will create more of our electricity right here at home while bringing back manufacturing jobs and supporting America’s rural communities. That’s a bright future indeed.