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Powering green jobs

Solar and wind industries see an opportunity to retrain skilled workers. But they want incentives.

Associated Press
Published February 6, 2008


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When 1,800 workers lost their jobs after a Maytag appliance factory and headquarters closed last year in the small town of Newton, Iowa, a wind turbine blade company saw opportunity - an available, skilled workforce in the middle of one of America's hardiest wind energy regions.

TPI Composites Inc. is building a plant there as the energy industry aims for a more sustainable future. With incentives, thousands of "green collar jobs" could be created, from ethanol production to wind turbines and solar panels, and all the maintenance and construction to support them, industry officials said.

TPI used to build boats, but switched to turbines in 2001 for the "major growth opportunity," said Steve Lockard, CEO of the Phoenix company.

However, advocates and executives say training is key to making sure the industry has enough skilled workers, and are pushing for more lucrative tax breaks, much like oil companies already receive, to make it profitable.

Presidential candidates are getting on board. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both say they would funnel federal money into job-training programs for workers to become skilled in green industries.

The Republican candidates, too, all have plans they say will stimulate the clean energy sector, but none have specifically addressed workforce training for sustainable energy industries.

For people like Robert Hughes, who worked at Maytag for 21 years, none of it really matters. He's been out of work since October. At 55, he was making $22 an hour on the assembly line.

TPI promised to create 500 jobs within three years at a base pay of $12.25 an hour, not bad for new workers, but quite a cut for Hughes, who says he might apply for work there anyway.

Overall, however, the unions see "an opportunity to restore some of the 3-million jobs in manufacturing we've lost in the last seven years," said Bob Baugh, executive director of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council.

But while wind and solar have been seeing steady increases in production and investment, federal tax breaks set to expire at the end of the year and an anticipated shortage of skilled workers could stall growth, experts say.

"Already companies that have invested millions of dollars in this industry are getting nervous," said Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Association.

An energy bill President Bush signed last year left out tax breaks for clean energy industries. The bill does authorize $125-million for green-collar job-training programs, but the industry says that isn't enough.

According to the wind association, when previous tax credits expired in 2004, wind capacity installed fell by 77 percent.

The government must not only extend tax credits, but provide more money for training, said George Sterzinger, executive director of the Renewable Energy Policy Project in Washington.

If not, manufacturing will go overseas, he said. It makes no sense, he added, to wean America from foreign oil only to become dependent on foreign products for sustainable energy.

"You look at a wind turbine. It's got a whole bunch of parts," Sterzinger said. "... Those parts can come from China, India - or from Buffalo."

By the numbers Solar energy industry

$200M Market worth five years ago.

$2B Market worth last year.

314 megawatts Record for new U.S. solar capacity set last year, according to Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association - enough to power about 80,000 homes.

Wind energy industry

45,000 Number of people employed by the wind energy industry in the United States.

$9B Investment last year. That's a 45 percent increase from 2006, says Randall Swisher, director of American Wind Energy Association.

500,000 Jobs that could be created by 2030, in manufacturing, construction and operation, Swisher says.

[Last modified February 5, 2008, 23:42:58]


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