Green Collar: Renewable energy jobs could boost state’s economy

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Switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy has potential to stabilize not only the planet’s climate but also the nation’s struggling manufacturing sector.

A new think-tank report says a national program to develop renewable energy would generate tens of thousands of jobs, including about 18,000 in Minnesota. Those workers would manufacture everything from gears and shafts to batteries and electronics for use in wind turbines, solar panels or biomass facilities.

The forecast was promoted at a press conference Monday by Mayors R.T. Rybak of Minneapolis and Chris Coleman of St. Paul, as well as members of the Blue-Green Alliance, a coalition of labor leaders and environmentalists headed by the Sierra Club and United Steelworkers.

“Why order wind turbines from Denmark or Spain to put up in Minnesota when we know that the Twin Cities has the workers and the factories to make them right here in the state?” asked Gerry Parzino, a representative of United Steelworkers.

Most large wind turbines are still made in Europe, where demand and federal subsidies have been more consistent than in the United States. Things are changing on this side of the pond, though, as more states adopt renewable energy policies. As they do, there are signs Minnesota is well positioned to become a leader in this country’s new energy economy.

“We can be the Silicon Valley of renewable energy, and that has to be our goal,” Mayor Coleman said.

The report, prepared by the Renewable Energy Policy Project in Washington, D.C., looks at the potential impact of a renewable energy bill that was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in August but held up by a Republican filibuster in the Senate. It would require utilities to generate 15 percent of their electricity from wind, solar or other renewable sources.

Minnesota lawmakers passed a similar but more aggressive mandate this spring that requires utilities to reach a 25 percent standard by 2025. It’s helped to pique interest in renewable energy in the state, but the report says a federal renewable energy standard that applied to all states would create demand for billions of dollars’ worth of new parts for use in renewable energy technologies.

The policy project analyzed the location of existing industries that would be well-suited for supplying parts to the renewable energy sector. It used that information to map the potential job creation by state and county. Minnesota is situated in the top tier of states, standing to gain 9,000 wind jobs, 5,000 solar, 2,500 biomass and 1,500 geothermal-related jobs.

Much of the current discussion about renewable energy is centered on large wind projects. That’s because it’s a proven technology already being embraced by utilities.

Minnesota is the ninth windiest state but it generates more wind power than all but three states (Iowa, Texas and California), according to the American Wind Energy Association. It’s served by Xcel Energy, which supplies customers with more wind-generated electricity than any other utility in the country. The state is also home to two large wind farm installers, Mortenson Construction in Minneapolis and Blattner & Sons in Avon.

But when it comes to building turbines and the parts that go into them, the state has barely a breeze of activity.

Testing the waters

Dentley Haugesag, renewable energy specialist for the state’s economic development department, knows of only a few firms in Minnesota that are currently involved in making parts for wind turbines. Wind projects account for just a fraction of most those companies’ overall business, he said.

Compare that to Iowa, which in the past few years has attracted two major turbine manufacturing facilities and hundreds of wind industry jobs. Haugesag said there’s no reason Minnesota can’t be competitive. It boasts a solid transportation system, including a seaport, railroads and key interstate intersections, he said. And it’s a major manufacturing hub in close proximity to windy places like North and South Dakota.

“Already, we have manufacturers in Minnesota that can make virtually every component in a wind turbine,” Haugesag said.

Minnesota economic development officials went to Los Angeles in June to court turbine manufacturers at a national wind industry conference, Haugesag said. The first thing companies wanted to know about was what local companies could supply parts. A statewide outreach effort is now aiming to answer that question.

The plan, Haugesag said, is to build a database available to wind manufacturers that would list all the Minnesota companies with capacity to make various parts, along with details on which parts they can provide and how they can be contacted. It would help out-of-state shops find suppliers here and also make a statement to companies considering relocating or expanding that Minnesota is ready for wind, Haugesag said.

His department has been inviting any manufacturers that might fit the bill to attend a series of meetings around the state. So far, they’ve been held Duluth, Bemidji, Mankato, Rochester, St. Cloud, Little Falls, and Fergus Falls. About 700 metro-area companies have been invited to attend five final meetings in the Twin Cities over the next three weeks.

“This is kind of testing the waters,” Haugesag said.

Mayors launch own initiative

Rybak and Coleman recently formed a separate Mayor’s Green Manufacturing Initiative, which is studying ways to attract “green collar” jobs to Minneapolis and St. Paul. It’s expected to release a report in January with its findings and recommendations, Coleman said.

“By pushing more renewable energy–something that will fight global warming and protect the environment–Minneapolis and St. Paul can reinvigorate the manufacturing base and create thousands of jobs here,” Rybak said. “Our sweat and brains will get us out of the mess we’re in today.”

All of the speakers at Monday’s press conference called for Congress to include the 15 percent renewable energy standard in its final energy bill, which it’s expected to take up soon. Rep. Keith Ellison, Jim Ramstad and Betty McCollum voted in favor of the renewable energy section in the House bill.

Even if the president signs a federal renewable electricity standard into law, however, Minnesota isn’t a shoe-in for the 18,000 new jobs forecasted by the renewable energy report, Haugesag said. The law would only intensify competition among wind states.

“We can’t think that now that we passed this standard,” Haugesag said, “we can sit back and wait for the turbine manufactures to show up.”

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