The new green economy is expected to decrease the billions of dollars spent each year on foreign oil, reduce carbon emissions and create millions of new jobs for Americans. While solar energy is promising, wind energy is booming.
Last year, the U.S. wind industry broke a record by installing 8,358 megawatts (MW) of new capacity, bringing our nation’s total wind energy capacity to 25,170 MW. By doing so, the United States took the global lead from Germany, which finished second (23,903 MW at end of 2008).
Engineering wind farms, erecting towers and installing turbines creates new transportation, construction and electrical jobs and, of course, permanent maintenance work. One area where the United States sorely needs to play catchup is manufacturing wind equipment.
“About 50 percent of U.S.-installed equipment is made overseas and imported,” said Peder Hansen, senior vice president at Northstar Wind Towers. “Even 50 percent of the huge steel tower sections, simply metal fabrication, is done overseas and brought here by boat.”
But jobs are shifting to our shores, even from foreign manufacturers that have found it more cost-efficient to assemble here. In 2008, according to the American Wind Energy Association, the wind industry pumped approximately $17 billion into the U.S. economy and employed roughly 85,000 workers. Even more promising, more than 55 new wind equipment-manufacturing facilities were announced or opened in 2008.
One company, Mariah Power in Manistee, Mich., is leveraging the skills and talents of ex-auto workers to make its new breed of vertical-axis Windspire turbines. Mariah, in partnership with MasTech Manufacturing, just retrofitted a factory that formerly made robotics equipment for the auto industry into a high-tech wind turbine manufacturing operation. The company currently employs 30 but expects to hire about 100 more workers over the next few years. MasTech’s Windspire 1.2 kW turbine is classified as “small wind,” but it could be a big business due to its propeller-free design, quiet operation, and $6,500 price tag, delivered with all components including inverter. It generates AC that is inverted to DC and transformed back into AC to connect to the grid for net metering. Later this year, Mariah will be introducing 3-kW on-grid units, off-grid DC versions, and even 220–240-volt units for export.
When installed, the Windspire is 30 feet high, just under national 35-foot zoning laws. Transportation is not a problem, either. According to Amy Berry, Mariah’s communications director, the whole unit weights 650 pounds, and the longest pole is 20 feet. Many dealers carry it in a pickup truck.
On the other hand, “big wind” has big transportation problems. A U.S. Department of Energy report, “Achieving 20 Percent Wind Energy in the U.S. by 2030,” identified a major problem: “Transportation issues, if unresolved, are potential showstoppers to the 20 percent wind scenario. Taller, wider towers and larger, heavier blades will likely exceed the current transportation envelope for both rail and highway systems.”
Northstar Wind Towers believes it has the solution with a high-tech plant it is building in Omaha to manufacture modular wind towers up to 140-meters high. These towers consist of roll-formed panels that are shipped on standard flatbed trucks and bolted together on-site. They are intended to supplant conventional megasections that cause the high transportation costs and logistics problems due to oversizing.
With drastic layoffs in the auto industry and general cutbacks in U.S. manufacturing, let’s hope that badly needed new jobs are in the wind for American workers.