Clean energy spurring Badger State job growth

While Wisconsin still lags behind most Midwest states in clean energy jobs, the sector is growing six times faster than overall job growth in the state — and the growth potential for Wisconsin renewable energy is virtually unlimited.

The classic question — Do you want the good news or the bad news first? — could apply to Wisconsin’s clean energy sector, according to the Clean Jobs Midwest report released last week.

The good news: The number of people now working in clean energy industries throughout the Wisconsin is 26,382, a nearly 7% increase since 2015, according to an analysis from Clean Energy Trust and the national nonpartisan business group Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2). The report notes job growth across sectors including renewable energy generation, advanced grid, energy efficiency, clean fuels, and advanced transportation is occurring almost six times faster than overall job growth in the Badger State.

The bad news: As much growth as Wisconsin is seeing in clean energy jobs, the state still lags behind much of the Midwest in many key categories.

The Midwestern region analyzed in the report is broad, comprising 12 states — Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

Eight states in the region have more clean energy jobs than Wisconsin. Only Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota fall behind the Badger State. At just 0.85%, Wisconsin also has the lowest share of clean energy workers compared to the total state workforce in the Midwest region. And while only three states in the region (Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio) have more solar workers than Wisconsin, the state has the second fewest wind workers.

Of course, there’s a silver lining.

“The growth potential for Wisconsin renewable energy is virtually unlimited at this point in time,” notes Tyler Huebner, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin. “There are probably a million structures in Wisconsin — homes and buildings — that could host solar panels, and somewhere around 4,000 have installed solar thus far.

“In addition, looking at our rural landscape, larger solar and wind farms have great potential to bring renewable power to our people,” Huebner adds. “About 5% of the electricity produced in Wisconsin comes from renewable sources, so theoretically we could expand that 20-fold at least, and even more if vehicles gradually transition to using more electricity instead of gasoline.”

Huebner isn’t just blowing smoke, if you’ll pardon the environmentally unfriendly pun. Wisconsin’s clean energy workforce employs almost five times as many people than all the computer programmers in the state, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The Midwest has witnessed declining manufacturing employment over the years and this report highlights the important role of clean energy jobs in filling the gap for the region's workforce,” Erik G. Birkerts, CEO of Clean Energy Trust, says. “We’re optimistic that this growth engine can continue unabated as the Midwest continues to prove it is a fertile region for clean energy innovation, enabling businesses to launch, grow, and create jobs.”

“States are leading the clean energy revolution in America,” notes Bob Keefe, E2’s executive director. “The Midwest has quickly become a clean energy job hub, with every state seeing job growth. This is the result of pioneering businesses aided in part by smart state and federal policies. We need more policymakers to incent clean energy development to ensure America doesn’t fall behind global competitors.”

Wisconsin’s clean energy workers make up an important and growing sector of our economy, adds Huebner. With renewable energy costs declining to historic levels, he says Wisconsin businesses stand ready to develop significantly more renewable energy projects in state, and to manufacture products and deliver services across the Midwest and the nation to enable the broader transition to clean power.

Clean careers

Locally, there’s also plenty of room for continued growth in clean energy jobs.

According to the Clean Jobs Midwest report, Dane County has a total of 2,600 clean energy jobs. Renewable energy accounts for 600 of those jobs, while another 1,900 come in the area of energy efficiency.

“Locally, the city of Madison has committed to 100% renewable energy and hired a consultant to figure out [how soon] that is feasible,” Huebner notes. “The local opportunity to grow our solar economy and jobs is huge.”

Energy efficiency continues to be the largest energy employer in Wisconsin, accounting for 18,404 jobs including hardware and software implementers, people working on high efficiency heating and cooling systems, and system technicians.

The biggest job growth occurred in the renewable energy sector.

Jobs in wind, solar, geothermal, bioenergy, and low-impact hydroelectric power grew by more than almost 14% in the past year. There are 4,207 solar workers in the state, 666 workers employed in wind generation, and 262 in geothermal.

For the state of Wisconsin, the report also found:

  • 999 clean energy workers are employed in the advanced transportation industry. This includes hybrid and plug-in electric vehicles, alternative fuels vehicles, and fuel cell vehicles.
  • Almost 46% of all clean energy jobs were in construction, which amounts to 12,098 jobs. Manufacturing accounted for 8,885 more jobs — almost 34% of all clean energy jobs.
  • The clean fuels and advanced grid sectors employ 340 and 185 workers respectively.

While wind energy is an area Wisconsin trails other Midwest states, it’s one that the Badger State has embraced before and stands to gain ground in once again.

“Wisconsin has a good wind resource, and we took advantage of that to meet our state’s 10% renewable standard passed in 2006,” says Huebner. “About half of that 10% is owned by Wisconsin utilities but comes from out-of-state wind resources. Unfortunately, we in Wisconsin have not taken advantage of our wind resource to the same degree as our neighboring states like Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, and even Indiana.”

However, the state’s newest wind farm, called Quilt Block and developed by EDP Renewables, is just finishing construction in Lafayette County in southwest Wisconsin and will produce enough clean electricity to power more than 37,000 Wisconsin homes. “In addition, wind developers are starting to scope out new projects in rural parts of the state,” continues Huebner, “so we’re hopeful wind generation is on the rise again in Wisconsin.”

Huebner says that since 2006, RENEW Wisconsin estimates over $2 billion has been invested into renewable energy projects in Wisconsin. Businesses and homeowners are making the decision every day to save money on their bills with solar, and now big power companies like Madison Gas & Electric are proposing wind and solar projects as cost-effective resources, he explains, making it a very exciting time for renewable energy in the state.

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Renewable pros and cons

“There’s no such thing as a ‘perfect’ energy source, whether it’s renewable or not — each option has pros and cons,” notes Huebner. “The biggest negative for renewables historically was they cost more — but my, oh my how that has changed. Wind costs are down 66% and solar costs are down 85% over the past decade, making them now the cheapest and lowest-risk forms of new electricity production. Wisconsin’s economy, workforce, and environment stand to benefit significantly from a push to expand solar, wind, and bioenergy, such as using cow manure and other waste materials for power.”

The big question about massive deployment of renewable energy is shifting away from cost — because costs have dropped dramatically — and toward the fact that the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, explains Huebner. However, U.S. electric grid operators are increasingly able to manage high amounts of wind power — up to 50% wind in some parts of the country on certain days — with no problems, he says. The long-run solution is a combination of excellent grid management and incorporating energy storage technologies.

While the environmental merits of clean energy are obvious, some detractors remain because of an entirely different environmental impact.

There is no scientific or medical study that has been peer-reviewed and accepted in a credible journal of literature that indicates wind turbines cause any negative impacts to human health, Huebner notes. Wind turbines do have wildlife impacts, though — namely on the bird population.

“However, cats are estimated to kill a few billion songbirds a year, while wind turbines are responsible for around 230,000 bird deaths. And bird impacts are being further mitigated by even smarter operation of the wind farms.”

Manufacturing marriage

One area that could be poised for clean energy growth concerns the larger manufacturing companies state officials are continuously working to lure to Wisconsin.

Foxconn and the companies it supplies to, including Apple, are increasingly relying on renewable energy in the U.S. and overseas, Huebner says. “The people — their customers — want products produced with renewable energy if we can get them, and these companies are now able to lock in long-term cost savings with solar and wind projects. The Foxconn facilities in Wisconsin could — and should — include renewable energy, [though] I don’t know if that has been part of the conversation with the state yet or not.

“Ramping up renewable energy would be one of the best economic development moves the state could make because it is a huge attraction for talent, especially for the younger generation,” Huebner adds. “We all want to be part of something great, and transitioning away from coal that sends billions of dollars annually to other states, and replacing it with Wisconsin-based solar, wind, bioenergy, and hydropower is just the kind of challenge that would attract the best and brightest to our state to help us achieve that mission.”

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