A Bright Spot for Employment: Careers in Renewable Energy

A Bright Spot for Employment: Careers in Renewable Energy

As renewable-electricity generation continues to expand across the United States, related employment opportunities are growing, as well. Employers now are seeking experienced and capable workers to install and service photovoltaic (PV) panels, wind turbines and all of the related wiring and connections. While growth rates may slow some as tax incentives are phased out, observers remain bullish that demand for workers will remain strong over the next decade or more. There is significant opportunity in renewables for contractors looking to get involved, but these opportunities have the potential to exacerbate the competition for skilled workers.

Targeting just two of the jobs within the larger category of renewable-energy careers, the 2018 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Outlook cited solar PV installers and wind turbine service technicians as the nation’s two fastest-growing occupations. The BLS predicts employment to approximately double in both of these fields by 2026, versus 2016 figures.

Of course, these are only two of a number of occupations one could pursue. Any project calling for PV installers or wind turbine service techs also is likely to need design engineers, project managers and a range of administrative staff. The employers seeking this talent can vary just as widely. Today, a renewable-energy pro could find themselves working for a tech company investing in its own wind farm, a utility building new solar arrays or a homebuilder incorporating solar-plus-battery packages into their plans for a new subdivision.

Taking a look at how solar and wind have both grown in capacity over the last several years provides some optimism. In 2016, wind energy moved ahead of hydroelectric power in its contribution to U.S. generation capacity. By the end of 2019, total installed wind capacity is expected to be 20 percent higher than 2017’s total.

Solar energy is expanding even quicker. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) anticipates the total number of U.S. solar installations, from residential rooftop panels to utility-scale arrays, to hit 4 million by 2023, up from 1.5 million at the end of 2018.

All the jobs under the sun

The National Association of State Energy Officials (NASEO) is even more bullish on jobs in the solar industry than the BLS. Its 2018 U.S. Energy and Employment Report, released in May 2018, estimated a total of almost 350,000 Americans who spent some portion of their time working in solar manufacturing, installation, distribution or professional services. The report says 70 percent of these spent at least half their time supporting solar efforts. While this was a 6 percent drop over the 2017 report’s figures, the 2018 report’s authors noted that the solar employers they spoke with anticipated a 5 percent jump in employment over the course of 2018.

The Solar Foundation, an industry advocacy group, saw a similar national job drop in its 2017 Solar Jobs Census, but noted that, even with that loss, solar jobs still increased that year in 29 states and the District of Columbia. The census reported a total of just over 250,000 solar jobs (this survey requires individuals to spend at least 50 percent of their time working specifically in solar). The group noted that the 2017 total represented a 168 percent jump from 2010, when it released the first edition of its census.

In addition to utilities and independent power producers, a number of large corporate customers are investing in wind to offset their own electricity demand.

Importantly for electrical contractors, both of these reports see the construction and installation sector as the solar industry’s biggest employer, accounting for just over half of workers, according to the NASEO report. A number of recently announced initiatives from states and electric utilities support an optimistic outlook for employment in these fields. These include the following:

  • Xcel Energy, a Minneapolis-based utility with service territories across eight states, announced plans in December to reduce its carbon emissions by 80 percent over 2005 levels by 2030, and to go 100 percent carbon-free by 2050. The company is already on track to hit a 50 percent reduction milestone in 2022, and will be doubling its current solar resources over the next four years to do so.
  • In November, Nevada voters backed a ballot question to raise the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS) to 50 percent by 2030—up from the previous 2025 target of 25 percent. The state’s largest utility, NV Energy, hit a 24 percent level in 2017, so it could need to double its current renewable capacity to meet the new 2030 goal.
  • In September, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation boosting that state’s RPS to 60 percent renewables by 2030 and 100 percent in 2045. The state will get there, in part, through a new California Energy Commission mandate that most new homes include rooftop PV panels sized to net out their annual electricity consumption.

As more states and utilities opt to act independently of the current decline in federal carbon-reduction efforts, local and regional initiatives are likely to increase.

Favorable onshore winds

Wind energy also has been booming the last several years. Technology improvements that have reduced wind turbine costs and boosted their abilities in lower-wind settings have combined to dramatically lower the cost of wind-generated electricity. In November, the investment firm Lazard’s annual levelized cost of energy analysis found wind to be the least expensive source of new power generation in many U.S. markets, regardless of incentives.

This growing affordability of wind power and an impending deadline for tax incentives have stoked a construction pipeline the American Wind Energy Association pegged at almost 38,000 megawatts of capacity in November—that includes projects under construction or in advanced development. In addition to utilities and independent power producers, a number of large corporate customers are investing in wind to offset their own electricity demand.

According to the SEIA, in 2018, a new solar project was begun in the United States every 100 seconds. Additionally, their data shows this as a doubling in projects initiated in just five years. Advancements in terms of equipment and National Electrical Code-related installation practices continue to bolster such growth and dictate the need for training.

“Even in the rainy Northwest, we have seen exponential growth in the solar industry over the last five years. Dramatic decreases in the cost of equipment and new technologies have made the installation of PV systems simpler, more efficient and less expensive,” said Ryan Bradt, assistant training director at Puget Sound Electrical JATC.

To meet the needs of training centers such as PSEJATC, the electrical training ALLIANCE has offered photovoltaics training for 20 years. Recently, a project was initiated to update the curriculum based on industry trends. Trainings can be as simple as a one-day Code update class, to a full design and installation class, including performing an actual hands-on installation of modules and balance of system equipment including racking and inverters.

According to Tom Sutton, director of the Wind Turbine Technician Academy at Kalamazoo Valley Community College in Kalamazoo, Mich., industry growth is driving a big demand for workers across a broad range of expertise.

“I think every sector is tapped out to capacity right now,” he said. “There are thousands and thousands of ancillary jobs.”

While based out of a local community college, Sutton’s program is national in scope. The 24-week program was developed in collaboration with the wind industry and requires students to demonstrate hands-on competency in a number of discrete skills. Master electricians have been among the program’s students, Sutton said, and many have been surprised at how much they didn’t know, despite their own previous electrical education.

“We’re talking power generation, and some of the rules and regulations are different,” Sutton said. “Not many of them have dealt with voltages of 34,500 volts, which is what we’re talking about in power production.”

Sutton believes new wind construction likely will slow following the 2020 expiration of the production tax credit (PTC), which has incentivized wind-energy development. However, plenty of opportunities should remain in the operations and maintenance end of the business. The fuel source might be free in wind-based generation, but the turbines still require maintenance over the course of a potentially 20-year lifespan. Research firm IHS Markit has estimated annual utility-scale wind farm costs for operations and maintenance at between $42,000–$48,000 per megawatt (MW) of capacity.

Looking offshore

While new onshore wind is expected to slow dramatically by the early 2020s thanks to the PTC’s expiration, offshore wind could be entering a boom phase at that time. Today’s U.S. offshore wind capacity totals 30 MW, generated by five turbines off the coast of Rhode Island, but projects now in planning could boost that to more than 1,000 MW in the next four or five years. Developers are in the early stage of two 400 MW wind farms off the coast of Massachusetts, with another 400 MW recently approved in Rhode Island. New York, New Jersey, Maryland and California also have projects at various stages of development. The Great Lakes also are being eyed, with a 20.7 MW demonstration effort now being eyed for a location off the coast of Cleveland.

A December auction of three lease areas for future offshore turbine installations shows enthusiasm is only growing stronger. Covering a combined 390,000 acres of federal waters south of the Massachusetts islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, the leases garnered winning bids that totaled $405 million.

“This industry is starting to build a very significant project pipeline,” said Bruce Carlisle, senior director for offshore wind for the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. “There is a significant career opportunity here in this industry.”

Carlisle’s organization, a state agency tasked with developing clean-energy resources within Massachusetts, released an offshore wind workforce assessment report this past fall. That document suggested the two initial 400 MW projects, alone, could support the equivalent of more than 100 electricians during construction. Carlisle said these jobs could range from top-level system engineering designers to linemen and cable technicians.

Of course, offshore wind construction and maintenance jobs require training beyond what is needed for onshore projects. The turbine mechanics are the same (although the turbines, themselves, can be much larger), but the working conditions can be much more challenging—akin, in some ways, to what one might encounter on an oil platform. Carlisle said Massachusetts is working with wind manufacturers, project developers and local community colleges to ramp up training programs.

“We need to be realists—for the first project or projects, we expect to see a blended mix,” Carlisle said. “But these training centers are going to get set up, the trade and labor folks are going to be participating. We fully expect to establish this workforce in the next three to four years.”

About the Author

Chuck Ross

Freelance Writer

Chuck Ross has covered building and energy technologies and electric-utility business issues for a range of industry publications and websites for more than 25 years. Contact him at chuck@chuck-ross.com.

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.