Tapping into Wind Power as a Source for Jobs

Tapping into Wind Power as a Source for Jobs

Wind energy capacity in the U.S. grew by 8,358 MW last year, an impressive 50 percent jump in total capacity, and employment in the industry rose 35 percent. Job opportunities are expected to grow with wind power playing a key role in efforts to achieve President Barack Obama's goal of doubling renewable energy production within three years.

Currently about 7 million households are powered by wind energy. As of January, 85,000 people were employed by the wind energy industry, up from 50,000 the year before. The jobs are very diverse across the industry and include turbine manufacturing, wind farm construction, wind farm development 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 jobs involved as well as the skills, experience and knowledge areas required to do the work:

Anemometers and wind vanes are used to gather data to predict the wind speed for future energy production. This information is applied in turbine placement and determines what parcels of land should be leased or purchased.

An electrical engineer is needed for a variety of tasks. Before planning a wind farm, it must be determined whether the electric grid in the area can support such large amounts of electricity. Turbines are connected to a collection system that concentrates the energy in a substation before it travels through a transmission line to the power grid. Communication between the turbines is necessary and relays need to be programmed to automatically turn off the turbines when necessary.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are used to create maps of potential wind farms. The maps may include roads, property lines, houses, topography, waterways, wind resources, proposed turbine locations and the electrical transmission system. Such features determine where turbines are sited within the constraints on the project.

Knowledge of policy and legal issues are important every step of the way, from turbine placement to working with local communities. Biologists conduct environmental studies to assess the impact of the wind farm on birds, bats and endangered species before permits can be obtained.

A financial analysis is conducted using the energy production estimates by researching power purchase pricing in the region. Many factors are considered, including the costs of financing such projects and maintenance expenses.

A wind developer oversees and manages the whole process. "This person is typically a Jack of All Trades," said Curt Bjurlin, a senior wind developer with the firm EcoEnergy. "Some companies select developers who are well-versed in engineering, others select lawyers, or planners. It all depends on what parts of the development process the developer will control and what part they will delegate. I think the key qualities to a successful developer are vision and tenacity."

Outreach in the local community is vital for support of the given project. Wind rights are leased from local landowners and an annual sum is paid. Many residents have a mixed response to the construction of a wind farm, due to the visual impact, wildlife concerns, a change in property values, a boost to local tax revenue and job creation.

Currently Texas, Iowa, California, Minnesota and Washington are the leading states for wind capacity. Unlike the jobs for the long-term operation of a wind farm, development jobs are not necessarily based in the area where the wind farms are constructed.

Image: A turbine under construction in Lena, Illinois, by Sarah Lozanova