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New jobs in the wind for Minnesota

The economic downturn offers a good example of how fast manufacturing jobs can disappear. In the last year, Minnesota lost more than 35,000, according the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development. 

With outsourcing and automation, these workers are among the most vulnerable in the United States, especially those in low-skill industries. Even during boom times, some low-skill workers lose their jobs to cheaper labor.

But there’s good news. By growing the state’s wind-energy industry, Minnesota could retain a good chunk of those jobs — anywhere from 3,000-5,000, according to Minnesota 2020’s latest report, “Winds of Progress.”

This isn’t some far-off dream. Minnesota can make the transition fast. So far, the state ranks fourth in installed wind capacity, producing enough wind energy to power about 450,000 homes. Only Texas, Iowa and California create more energy from wind. Minnesota’s natural wind resources, especially along the prairie, our manufacturing base and high-tech workforce position the state well to capitalize on becoming a wind center.

State is in top third in related industries
In fact, a lot of the infrastructure is in place. Minnesota already ranks in the top third of the nation when it comes to companies doing business in related industries. By investing and expanding wind energy in Minnesota, those companies can grow by producing components for wind turbines and wind farms.

In the short term, investing in wind power is a targeted job-creation project. Minnesota’s fabricated metal production, which is vitally important for the construction of wind turbines, has endured job losses peeking near 11 percent over the past year. These out-of-work manufacturers have skills that transfer well from their old jobs. It’s easy for a welder to look at a tower diagram and know where and how to seal the seams. 

For the most part, these jobs can’t be outsourced because the blades and towers for wind turbines are so big and bulky they’re expensive to ship over long distances. It makes sense for businesses to build a manufacturing plant for these parts near the wind farms. The cost of shipping won’t go down anytime in the near future because the towers and blades on the turbines keep getting bigger and bigger.

Encourage investment, local ownership
How can we make sure that the wind energy industry takes off in Minnesota? The state needs to encourage investment in wind research and lure producers to move their production facilities into the state.

We must also encourage local ownership of wind farms. MN 2020’s report shows the economic impact is three times greater for local farms than a corporate owned farm.

The federal government needs to do its part as well. It’s off-and-on commitment to the Production Tax Credit (PTC) has caused Minnesota’s wind-energy industry to grow in fits and spurts. Whenever the tax credit is in effect, Minnesota’s wind production capacity has skyrocketed. Unfortunately, the tax credit has been allowed to expire three times in this decade and each time it has expired Minnesota’s wind energy expansion grinds to a halt. If the federal government makes a lasting commitment to the PTC, Minnesota’s wind production capabilities could reach its potential much sooner.

We’re building an industry that will go far beyond creating jobs. Wind can help diversify the economies of our rural towns and expand research opportunities at our colleges and universities.  If we do this properly, Minnesota has the opportunity to become a leader in an industry that will provide lasting impact on the state, while providing clean energy that will help preserve our state’s beauty.

Trent Wells is a communications associate at Minnesota 2020, a progressive, nonpartisan think tank based in St. Paul. This article originally appeared on its website.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/21/2009 - 09:34 am.

    This article is a perfect example of why the hoopla about “green jobs” saving states economies is nothing but hot air.

    The wind turbine industry is going to do it now? We’re going to have mom and pop industries popping up all over rural Minnesota?

    Think again.

    The largest corporation in the country, GE, has already been making substantial investments in wind turbine technology and manufacturing for years. They are light years ahead of everyone else and are well positioned to lead this market for the long haul.

    They have converted a large manufacturing plant in Pensacola, FL. to produce carbon fiber composite blades as large as 80m in length. The huge fiberglass shrouds for the generators are also manufactured there.

    GE ships parts from this plant all over the world; maybe that’s why they are making them near a major sea port! In fact, they are currently producing turbine components for huge projects in China and Turkey, as well as for smaller projects throughout the US.

    So Pensacola is rolling in economic prosperity, right? Um, not so much.

    That plant employs approximately 90 people, mostly consisting of a large engineering department. Most of those high salary engineering jobs have been filled by GE employees that transferred from somewhere else.

    Many of the other projects are planned and executed by outside contractors; like me.

    What about all of those high paying manufacturing jobs? They are non-existent….but why?

    Folks, the production is 90% automated.

    I know this because I designed and programmed the electrical controls for the machines used to produce the blades.

    Each blade takes a team of 2 (two) workers to make. Each team can handle up to 8 (eight) machines in production.

    I’m hoping to get the project to design a machine that can produce pairs of blades with only one operator.

    So when I read things like “Production Tax Credit (PTC) has caused Minnesota’s wind-energy industry to grow in fits and spurts. Whenever the tax credit is in effect, Minnesota’s wind production capacity has skyrocketed. Unfortunately, the tax credit has been allowed to expire three times in this decade and each time it has expired Minnesota’s wind energy expansion grinds to a halt.”, I get a chuckle.

    And that is for a “green” industry that actually produces a viable product that people want to buy. Many of the “technologies” being touted of late are, in fact, nothing more than taxpayer financed pork barrel projects that will never return a profit on the investment.

    The ethanol plants that have been sprouting up in corn growing regions will become rusting hulks within the next 10 years; I’d bet my paycheck on that. Switch grass? Please.

    There *are* opportunities emerging in energy production….if you have a $10 million dollar budget ready to invest to exploit them.

    You cannot grow an economy that relies on taxpayer financed subsidies to produce a product that the market is not asking for. And anyone that tells you otherwise is taking you for a fool….be insulted and respond accordingly.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/21/2009 - 09:57 am.


    I’ve been informed that since I was last in Pensacola in 2000, GE has started making generators at that facility as well as the blades and shrouds(which makes sense since it used to be a Westinghouse generator manufacturing plant).

    Total employee count today? Approximately 150.

  3. Submitted by Pat McGee on 07/21/2009 - 01:23 pm.

    Thank you, Thomas Swift, for bringing this back down to earth!

  4. Submitted by david granneman on 07/21/2009 - 07:47 pm.

    hello all
    i have a plan to resolve minnesota’s budget problems and to bring jobs and properity to the state.

    Associated Press article
    BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) – Dozens of fruitful wells beneath the rich Bakken shale in North Dakota continue to fuel a hunch among oilmen and geologists that another vast crude-bearing formation may be buried in the state’s vast oil patch.

    how can minnesota cash in on the oil in north dakota ?
    instead of wasting money on windmills – we need an energy plan that will bring jobs to minnesota. in northern minnesota we could pave the way to have private investors build several oil refineries and pumping stations. the crude oil from noth dakoata could easily be piped or trucked to these refineries where gas and diesel fuel and other products could be refined . large pipelines could bring oil from the canadian oil sands. minnesota could become the texas of the north. there is no unemployment or budget deficites in texas. where there is energy production there are jobs and properity. northern minnesota is hard hit by unemployment. this plan would give northen minnesota a whole new future of prosperity and growth. in addition this would provide minnesota cheap fuel to grow and prosper.

  5. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 07/21/2009 - 09:13 pm.

    Dave…Oil closed today @64.72

    The price of oil will have to be well north of 100.00 Bbl for there to be a return on investment on most future exploration whether in the “oil sands”, shale or off shore sources.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/22/2009 - 10:32 am.

    I’m all for using alternative energy sources where applicable.

    Wind generated electric power is a no-brainer for areas that have that resource available. (BTW, not to beat a dead horse, but GE engineers have reduced the constant velocity necessary to generate electric power by a factor of 10 or more in the past few years)

    Photovoltaic cells have a way to go, but there is no reason to believe that solar energy will not be a very viable source of electric power for the Southwest in the near future.

    Using alternative resources not only puts pressure on the price of petroleum, it ensures that the known supply will be available longer for use in cars and trucks, which require convenient, portable sources of energy.

    It’s just as silly to discount new energy solutions where they are applicable as it is to try and stuff them into every situation.

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