Renewable energy: A place to find a sustainable job, part 1

Despite the slow transition toward renewable energy, there is a growing undercurrent of advocacy that is putting innovation into action. Coinciding with earth, wind, fire, and water, the four elements of sustainability are available for advancement: technology, opportunity, people, and altruism.

Wisconsin, a former powerhouse of progress, is falling back in the renewable energy movement. People seeking a career in renewables might see Packer-land as a place to pack up and leave for greener pastures. However, renewable energy education programs and burgeoning green companies are prevailing in the Midwest.

Renewable opportunities

“We have more people hiring than we have students in the pipeline,” Ken Walz, a chemistry and engineering instructor at Madison College, reveals.

Madison College offers multiple certificate programs in renewable energy education and training that complement a variety of traditional engineering, science, and technology jobs.

“The thing that has been really driving that [demand] has been economics. When I started teaching here about 15 years ago, the renewable energy sector was sort of driven by ethically-motivated consumers,” Walz explains. “But that’s totally changed. Those pioneers, by being the early adopters, help bring down the costs of the technology to the point now where wind and solar are cost competitive with fossil fuels. In fact, in many cases they are cheaper than fossil fuels.”

Duane Kreklow, a Madison College electrical apprentice student, describes his experience with the photovoltaic (solar) training on campus.

“It’s an important part of the curriculum, especially with photovoltaics being something new to our industry that’s getting a lot more popular. So, it’s just a good introduction for us to learn how these systems operate and how to safely install them,” Kreklow shares.

Kreklow expresses a positive sentiment for the renewable energy movement as something beneficial for his industry.

“I think it’s great. It’s still electrical work for us in the future. Solar and wind are going to be a big thing, especially for us apprentices coming into the field. Down the road it’s definitely something that we’ll have to do, so [the training] is good experience,” Kreklow emphasizes.

The range of employment for green jobs is abundant. Major sectors that comprise the green job market include: solar, wind, and bioenergy.

(Data referenced from Preparing the Future Sustainable Energy Workforce and The Center for Renewable Energy Advanced Technological Education by Ken Walz and Joel Shoemaker)


According to Meister Consultants Group and the Environmental Defense Fund report, the types of jobs found in the renewable energy sector include: component manufacturing, project development, construction and installation, financing, engineering, sales and distribution, systems analysis, and operations and management.

Salaries in the green job sector are dependent on career level and education. Based on data from the BLS, the solar field wages range from $30,290 per year as a solar installer up to $106,370 per year as a solar physicist. In the wind field, wages range from $29,320 per year as a turbine team assembler up to $94,780 as an aerospace engineer. Bioenergy job wages range from $19,130 per year as a farmworker up to $101,970 per year as a construction manager.

Cris Folk, an instructor of electronics and industrial maintenance at Madison College, explains each sector of the green energy industry in relation to Wisconsin. Biofuel and solar seem to be taking off, but wind remains uncertain.

“There’s a lot of pessimism [with the green job market] because of current administration,” Folk reveals. “In spite of that, we are seeing record [solar] installation.”

However, “wind resources aren’t that great here in Wisconsin,” Folk acknowledges. Walz agrees, noting Wisconsin’s policies with wind have inconsistences that deter further development.

On the other hand, biodigestors, which fall in the category of biofuel technology, have been utilized around the state. Folk describes a specific example of a dairy farm that is thriving with a biodigestor.

Crave Brother’s Cheese in Waterloo has 1,000 cows. They put the cow’s manure through their biodigestor to create heat. That heat is then transferred to the cheese plant to help with the cheese production. Another byproduct of this process is peat moss, which is used for cow bedding. This system results in Crave Brothers saving money while running a sustainably smart business.

Kwik Trip, a company started in Eau Claire, has adapted its trucks to run on compressed natural gas, which is a fuel obtained from cultivated methane. Even Milwaukee’s Harley-Davidson uses the landfill waste to capture the methane to produce CNG-run vehicles.

However, Madison College is not seeing many students signing up for its biofuel class currently. Folk attributes this decline in interest to gas prices being so low. Nevertheless, he predicts that when the prices go up again, the value and student interest in biofuels will return.



Renewable education

To cultivate the new era of green jobs for Wisconsin, providing proper education and training is essential. In an article from the Journal of Sustainability Education, Walz and Joel Shoemaker of Madison College outline the necessary steps toward cultivating a greener workforce. Walz and Shoemaker describe Madison College’s efforts to provide training and development to educators in renewable energy technology.

In 2010, funding from the National Science Foundation allowed Madison College to host a weeklong Renewable Energy Academy series, which provided tools and resources to educate teachers. From that series, a Biofuels Academy was developed and serves to train the National Alternative Fuel Training Consortium, which, according to the NAFTC website, advocates for the use and technology development of alternative fuel.

A Solar Electric Academy was developed while working with Solar Energy International. According to their website, SEI is a nonprofit educational organization which strives to provide current, innovative training and education in renewable energy.

More recently, this solar electric academy has been expanded upon with a STEM Solar Institute that provides teachers with experiential training that can be replicated in a classroom.

In addition, a pilot program for a Wind Academy was also developed. A small number of community college faculty and staff, and wind energy technicians from Wisconsin and Illinois, worked together to practice turbine installation.

Overall, the Renewable Energy Academies reached over 200 STEM high school and community college instructors. The group included 70 women, which is an encouraging number due to the industry being male dominated.

Looking forward, Madison College partnered with College of the Canyons and Lane Community College to form The Center for Renewable Energy Advanced Technological Education in 2016. With funding from the NSF, CREATE intends to continue advancing educational renewable energy programs nationwide.

However, with hope and progress always comes doubt and retroaction. The current presidential administration’s environmental policies have proven the disparity in progress versus power. President Donald Trump’s executive order to slash environmental regulations has ignited severe backlash.

Walz says that on a national level those policies will have an effect, but it’s nothing to be very concerned about due to society’s general negative attitude towards pollution and resource exhaustion.

Old infrastructure in business and utilities are working to update, which involves natural gas, solar, and wind. Motivation to integrate and update old infrastructure will come from social pressure and monetary advantage.

Greg Nemet, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the La Follette School of Public Affairs and the Nelson Institute’s Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment, describes the economic and intrinsic value of green jobs.

“Cheaper technology that we don’t produce in Wisconsin, not much of which is produced in the U.S., has fueled this service industry and installation industry that does have a lot of jobs, and there’s something about it that’s intrinsically local,” Nemet highlights. “Renewables are a better bet for a lot of reasons, mainly because they are cleaner. Two, there’s a lot more jobs attached to them that are less likely to be automated away. And then three, the renewables are just becoming so cheap now that it’s not really a sacrifice.”

Read part 2 of this blog post.

Rachel Sanders is a student journalist with an interest in sustainability and community advocacy. She has a BA in communications from UW–Whitewater and is currently pursuing a journalism certificate through Madison College.

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