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New Jobs in the Wind

July 20, 2009 By Trent Wells
The economic downturn is a good example of how fast manufacturing jobs can disappear.  In the last year, Minnesota lost more than 35,000, according the state's Department of Employment and Economic Development. 

With outsourcing and automation, these workers are among the most vulnerable in the United States, especially those in low-skill industries.  Even during boom times, some low-skill workers lose their jobs to cheaper labor.

But there's good news. By growing the state's wind energy industry, Minnesota could retain a good chunk of those jobs-anywhere from 3,000-5,000, according to Minnesota 2020's latest report, Winds of Progress.

This isn't some far off dream.  Minnesota can make the transition fast.  So far, the state ranks 4thin installed wind capacity, producing enough wind energy to power about 450,000 homes.  Only Texas, Iowa and California create more energy from wind.  Minnesota's natural wind resources, especially along the prairie, our manufacturing base and high-tech workforce position the state well to capitalize on becoming a wind center.

In fact, a lot of the infrastructure is in place.  Minnesota already ranks in the top third of the nation when it comes to companies doing business in related industries.  By investing and expanding wind energy in Minnesota, those companies can grow by producing components for wind turbines and wind farms.

In the short term, investing in wind power is a targeted job creation project.  Minnesota's fabricated metal production, which is vitally important for the construction of wind turbines, has endured job losses peeking near 11 percent over the past year.  These out-of-work manufacturers have skills that transfer well from their old jobs.  It's easy for a welder to look at a tower diagram and know where and how to seal the seams. 

For the most part, these jobs can't be outsourced because the blades and towers for wind turbines are so big and bulky they're expensive to ship over long distances.  It makes sense for businesses to build a manufacturing plant for these parts near the wind farms.  The cost of shipping won't go down anytime in the near future because the towers and blades on the turbines keep getting bigger and bigger.

How can we make sure that the wind energy industry takes off in Minnesota? The state needs to encourage investment in wind research and lure producers to move their production facilities into the state.

We must also encourage local ownership of wind farms.  MN 2020's report shows the economic impact is three times greater for local farms than a corporate owned farm.

The federal government needs to do its part as well.  It's off and on commitment to the Production Tax Credit (PTC) has caused Minnesota's wind energy industry to grow in fits and spurts. Whenever the tax credit is in effect, Minnesota's wind production capacity has skyrocketed. Unfortunately, the tax credit has been allowed to expire three times in this decade and each time it has expired Minnesota's wind energy expansion grinds to a halt. If the federal government makes a lasting commitment to the PTC, Minnesota's wind production capabilities could reach its potential much sooner.

We're building an industry that will go far beyond creating jobs.  Wind can help diversify the economies of our rural towns and expand research opportunities at our colleges and universities.  If we do this properly, Minnesota has the opportunity to become a leader in an industry that will provide lasting impact on the state, while providing clean energy that will help preserve our state's beauty.

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