I’m in Anaheim, California this week covering the 11th annual WindPower conference, hosted yearly by the America Wind Energy Association (AWEA). WindPower 2011 lasts from May 22 to May 25, and I am coming off a long and didactic Day One. The expo is dominated by technologists and engineers, but as I have been reminded regularly throughout the day, the American wind industry is a diverse and eclectic bunch.
Larry Flowers, the deputy director of AWEA, began the this morning’s Jobs Seminar by producing an ad-hoc list of thirty-two distinct careers represented in the wind energy field, and by the end of the session he had added seven more. This recurring theme became clearer as the seminars and summits progressed. Fully 60% of WindPower attendees fall into the category “Other,” far outflanking their cookie-cutter peers of technicians, engineers, developers, and corporate officers. Even more significantly outnumbered are the lonely, but vital, soil ecologists, wetland biologists, construction workers, transportation experts, utility representatives, and policy professionals.
The expansiveness and complexity of the wind power industry is surely a desirable quality, and the various panelists and fellow attendees were eager to spin it that way. Interdisciplinary ventures mean multiplicative benefits, and the intersections encountered in wind allow great minds to come together in a way few other sectors do. But the short story? Jobs. With exponentially growing new installed annual capacity observed over the last decade, experts here jump at the chance to talk about the cross-sector effects that new clean power will have on employment. 75,000 jobs exist today because of national wind energy operations, and although that’s down from the 2009 surge of 85,000 following a flush of stimulus-funded construction projects, analysts insist that 75,000 will be the bottom of the barrel starting this year. According to trade publication North American Windpower, new construction of generating capacity in Q2-2011 is twice what it was in 2009 and 2010
That’s primarily what fuels these people, and where their passion comes from. The common denominator among the scientists and the entrepreneurs and the financiers is their dedication to accelerating this guaranteed-growth industry, to fueling the nation’s sorely needed drive for jobs and economic recovery. Climate change, meanwhile, is mostly a placeholder at WindPower. Over eight hours of conferencing and the umbrella topic of anthropogenic global warming was mentioned only a couple times, and even then only in passing. The image of a wind turbine may be a striking and inspiring symbol of the movement to rescue the climate, but to the people who design, make and sell them, turbines are a corporeal way of life (literally).
And that, perhaps, was the most inspiring notion of the day—that Americans can build their way to a renewed prosperity. As Steve Busch of Michigan’s Energetx Composites put it, “Manufacturing’s coming back to the United States of America.” This may go against conventional economic wisdom, which tells us that the US has to get comfortable relying on services and finance for its economic growth. But WindPower devotees insist that America can produce durable goods again, at large scales and to great economic effect. The majority of domestic turbine towers, nacelles, and blades are manufactured in the United States, significantly in the American Southeast, where there are few wind resources and little installed capacity. What the US does import is mostly high-cost and European, making wind tech imports an attractive option for a robust domestic industry. Each of the over 8,000 components required for the construction of a wind turbine represent an opportunity to capitalize on technological supply chains and distributional benefits of a reinvigorated American manufacturing sector.
Total installed wind capacity in the US now exceeds 41,000 MW, and levels of new installed capacity have increased regularly over the last decade. Wind power’s Achilles heel, of course, is intermittency and the difficulty of achieving base load power generation with the technology. But wind is competitive with fossils on a levelized $/kWh basis, and trails only natural gas in the amount of annual installed new capacity of cumulative energy generation. The wind is blowing, and the tech is growing.
The conference, meanwhile, has mirrored this growth. After a decade of yearly showings around the country, WindPower has become the best networking opportunity for wind power professionals in the US. From humble-ish beginnings in 2001, with a modest 1,000 attendees and 25 exhibitors, the conference now proudly boasts 20,000 visitors angling to get a look at over 1,100 exhibits. These exhibits span over 330,000 square feet of convention center and hotel ballroom floors, which various AWEA representatives tried to convince us was the equivalent of between nine and eighteen football fields (it’s actually closer to seven). Nonetheless, the space is breathtaking and the technology impressive in more ways than one.
Photo by Pixomar.