I have been with Conservation Minnesota a year now, talking about the need for more renewable energy all over southern Minnesota. While there has been a lot of progress, there has also been a lot of pushback. One of the biggest arguments against moving away from coal-generated electricity has been the loss of jobs and the costs that would be incurred by the suppliers and utilities. In most of southern Minnesota, the utilities are municipalities or cooperatives that have less financial freedom than investor-owned utilities, and many have long-term contracts with suppliers for coal. But the economic arguments always seem to address the past and present. What about the future?
According to Steve Vietor—the dynamic and knowledgeable instructor who runs the renewable energy program at Riverland Community Colleges (RCC)—the economic future looks bright for jobs in renewable energy and southern Minnesota. For 25 years, Steve has been an electrical instructor at RCC and when he recently spoke at a CERTs (Clean Energy Resource Teams) meeting in Austin, I was blown away by his presentation on the career opportunities available for students interested in pursuing training in renewable energy fields.
Around 2008, EDF Renewables came into the region with a major wind installation and the career pathway was clear—train students for careers in electrical and mechanical maintenance and production of wind energy. Later, training for solar energy was added and a two-year program boasting between 15 and 28 students on average was born. The program has fluctuated with the variable ups and downs of wind as it was getting established and has been subject to the expirations and extensions of the Production Tax Credit (PTC). However, the growing popularity of solar energy has stabilized the program and it is taking off as companies like Vestas are doing major wind installations all across southern Minnesota and Iowa and hiring for high wage jobs with rapid upward mobility faster than RCC can turn out graduates. In fact, they are so eager to get skilled technicians that they are even recruiting graduates back to the region.
Steve told me that at a recent Minnesota Energy Coalition conference, he learned that Xcel expects to lose 45% of its employees as the Baby Boomers head into retirement in the next 10 years. This means that there will be a huge void in experienced labor if programs like RCC’s don’t exist and expand. As I consider the repeated economic arguments around coal-based electricity and jobs, I can’t help but think that this is the future answer—new workers for a new generation of energy jobs that keep our small towns vibrant and viable. If programs like RCC’s allow young people to stay in the towns in which they grew up and raise families in these rural Minnesota communities (where many of the renewable energy installations are/will be), the economic benefits are clear—the cost of living in the past is much greater than the investment in the future.