Powering up

Worker demand increases in renewable energy sectors

Posted on Jul 29, 2019 :: Insight Insider
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

In considering hot job markets, technology and health care seem to be on everyone’s list, but there’s another industry sector quietly picking up steam and creating 10 percent more jobs than there were two years ago.

The clean energy sector, which includes a wide swath of employees from solar panel installers to manufacturing workers making components used to produce energy from renewable resources, is expected to add 8.4 percent more workers in 2019 in Wisconsin, after adding 2.4 percent more in 2018, according to a study produced by Clean Energy Trust.

“Clean energy is a job creator today in Wisconsin, and as costs for key clean energy products like solar, wind, energy efficiency and clean vehicles continue to fall, we have a big opportunity to employ even more Wisconsinites in this growing industry,” says Tyler Huebner, executive director of Renew Wisconsin, adding that clean energy jobs are being created more quickly in Wisconsin than elsewhere in the Midwest.

That could be related to the state’s reliance on coal-generated power. Last year, nearly half of the state’s electricity came from coal, although the amount of electricity produced from natural gas-fired power plants continues to eat into that total, making up about 24 percent of the state’s power creation.

In 2018, an estimated 9 percent of Wisconsin’s utility-scale net electricity generation came from renewable energy sources, but that figure doesn’t include electricity a business may generate and use onsite with its own solar panels.

Jenny Brinker, an energy management instructor at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, says utilities are looking more at energy created from renewable resources, such as solar and wind.

“I definitely see the number of jobs growing” in companies that work with renewables, she says.

All types of work

When discussing jobs in clean energy, Renew Wisconsin’s Huebner says it really runs the gamut from installers and service technicians to manufacturing employees and people looking to develop new ways or improve methods utilizing renewable energy.

While it may not be happening in the region, there’s a growing interest nationwide in using wind turbines to generate electricity. That’s good news to a company like Broadwind Energy, which makes wind turbine towers at its Manitowoc plant. In the past few months, the company has received nearly $60 million in orders, including a $39 million order just last month for additional towers and fabrication.

That interest in wind power is also seen at Lakeshore Technical College in Cleveland, which offers the only wind technician training program in the state and attracts not only students from throughout Wisconsin, but from other states as well.

“The second fastest-growing career in the country is being a technician on utility wind farms,” says Justin Barrett, LTC’s wind energy technology instructor. “In many other places, wind energy is the fastest growing source for power. We haven’t quite seen that here yet.”

Solar power — another source of renewable energy — has also made its mark in the region. Energy Bank Inc. in Manitowoc developed Fusion, a solar-powered LED system that directly integrates solar panel DC output with high-performance LED luminaries and controls. Patents are pending on Fusion, which has shown it can reduce lighting operating costs by up to 93 percent.

Fusion utilizes solar panels placed on roofs — something Jesse Michalski, project manager for Eland Electric, says is definitely growing. He says when a business wants to add solar panels to its roof, it has fewer hoops to jump through versus going with a wind turbine, which neighbors may protest, saying it lowers overall property values.

“Plus, solar panels take up less room and most people don’t even know they’re there,” he says.

Headquartered in Green Bay, Eland Electric has seen a steady increase in the number of solar projects since it began offering the service 15 years ago, Michalski says.

“It’s a good market now for businesses and residences to go ahead and add solar panels. Depending on what happens at the federal or state levels, some of the current incentives — tax credits — may go away,” he says.

The growth in turning to solar or wind power is clear, according to NWTC’s Brinker. “Organizations are more interested in renewable energy and are looking to decrease the size of its carbon footprint,” she says.

As an example, NWTC recently partnered with Werner Electric Supply and Eland Electric to install a 100-kW solar photovoltaic (PV) system at its Great Lakes Energy Education Center in Green Bay. Werner supplied the 276 solar modules, inverters, optimizers, racking and other systems as well as design assistance for the project. Eland installed the system on the center’s upper roof.

Students also got into the act, Brinker says. She explains NWTC’s solar energy technology students installed a 50-kW PV system on the lower solar lab roof. “They were able to get vital hands-on experience,” Brinker says.

The goal is to keep adding solar PV systems at the center until the energy center reaches its goal to be a net-zero facility.

“We are looking at those to be future hands-on projects for our students,” says Brinker, who the National Science Foundation recently selected as one of nine U.S. instructors chosen to visit Germany and learn more about their robust renewable energy industry. The Germans receive 40 percent of their public electricity generation from renewable resources compared to 17.7 percent in the United States.

Eland’s Michalski says it was exciting to work on such a large project at a facility that’s looking to become net-zero. “It is also a pleasure to see an educational facility offer one of the state’s best hands-on training facilities for renewable energy.”

When discussing solar panel usage with potential customers, one of the first misconceptions Michalski clears up is that you need a sunny day to produce solar power. A cloudy day will still produce electricity but obviously  not as much as a sunny day.

“People think you need to live somewhere it’s sunny all the time like California to make it work, but the reason places like California have so many solar panels is the utility prices are so high,” he says. “You’ll get your investment in solar panels back in three years if you live in California just because of how much energy costs. In Wisconsin, it’s probably about 10 years.”

Learning new skills

The addition of new technologies and increased use of renewable energy sources requires workers with new skills, whether its employees right out of college or incumbent workers who need additional training. Postsecondary schools in the region have responded by adding programs and training in solar and wind installation as well as energy management.

LTC began its wind turbine technician program after the college acquired a wind turbine through a grant.

As part of the two-year associate degree program, students work on LTC’s turbine. Since it’s not connected to the grid, instructors can stop and start it for training purposes.

“Students get great hands-on experience,” says Barrett, adding that anyone interested in working with wind turbines must be able to correctly ascend and descend the towers — which for some can be the greatest challenge.

At NWTC, there are several energy-related programs to choose from, including associate degrees in solar energy technology, utilities engineering technology and energy management technology; certificates in renewable energy-solar electric, renewable energy- solar thermal and energy management; and technical diplomas in electrical power distribution and gas utility construction and service.

While the demand is high for graduates — especially those in energy management — Brinker says the programs are not full.

“The economy is doing so well so more are opting to get a job right out of school or stay in a current job rather than go to school and train for a new career,” she says. “As renewable energy becomes more popular and even more jobs are created, I think there will definitely be more interest among students.”

Where the jobs are

Jobs tied to clean energy cross the spectrum from manufacturing clean energy components such as wind towers or solar panels and construction — the installation of such devices — to employees working on grid modernization
and energy storage.

Small businesses make up the majority of firms engaged in the clean energy sector, with 68.6 percent of clean energy businesses employing fewer than 20 workers.