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As fossil fuel jobs falter, renewables come to the rescue

Jeff Berardelli
·7 mins read

In 2011, Don Williams made the long trip from Michigan to North Dakota hoping to capitalize on the Bakken oil boom — to, as he says, "chase oil and make quick cash." It paid off; for years Williams worked in operations on the oil fields, watching over production and maintaining pump jacks. 

To say that Williams worked hard would be an understatement. Putting in 12-hour days, 7 days a week — 84-hour work-weeks were typical. And the work was lucrative. The money flowed as fast as the oil did — until it didn't. In May, Williams was laid off, along with most of the Bakken workforce, when boom went bust.

But within a week, he made a huge career leap — 300 feet up, to be exact — ascending from the firm grounds of the Bakken Oil Fields to the top of a giant wind turbine to take part in a 12-week training course to become a wind energy technician. In his words, he no longer wanted to "ride the oil waves, the highs and lows," anymore.

While the jobs are on opposite ends of the energy spectrum — from dirty to clean and from old to new — the mechanical skills Williams gained from his time working in oil helped him navigate the career transition. And lately, many ex-oil workers are taking that same leap in hopes of finding long-term stability — something that is becoming scarcer in fossil fuels.

Workers atop a 300-foot-tall wind turbine in North Dakota. / Credit: CBS News
Workers atop a 300-foot-tall wind turbine in North Dakota. / Credit: CBS News

In the past year, two seismic shocks — a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, followed by global pandemic lockdowns — tanked oil demand and prices too, devastating oil and gas production in the Bakken Formation

From June 2019 through June 2020, U.S. crude oil production fell 38% and natural gas production fell 31%. The unemployment rate in North Dakota rose to 11.3% in June. For the month of August, continued claims of unemployment in North Dakota were nearly 100,000, and about a quarter of those were tied directly to mining, quarrying and oil & gas extraction — the highest unemployment of any sector in the state.

But as luck would have it, fossil fuels aren't the only energy source North Dakota is rich in. With an average wind speed of 20 mph 300 feet above the ground where the wind turbines churn, North Dakota is prime real estate for wind power. It ranks 10th in wind production in the U.S. with more than 3,000 megawatts (MW) of installed capacity.

Williams says he sees evidence of a renewable revolution right in his backyard, with wind turbines popping up all around his community. 

He received his wind technician training at Lake Region State College, a couple hours' drive east from the Bakken oil fields. To earn a one-year college credit certificate, the cost of the course is about $5,000. Less than a month out of the training program, Williams has already landed a wind technician job at Gemini Energy Services.

Don Williams and a colleague at work atop a wind turbine in North Dakota. / Credit: CBS News
Don Williams and a colleague at work atop a wind turbine in North Dakota. / Credit: CBS News

Although he says the starting salary does not quite measure up to what the oil fields paid, the trade-off of more time with his family and more stability is well worth it to him. Besides, he's optimistic about his future financial prospects because he says the industry offers a lot of upward mobility and areas to specialize in.

Professor Jay Johnson runs the Wind Energy Technician Program at Lake Region State College in eastern North Dakota, and recently he's seen a big increase in demand. "Wind energy development has been on a tear the last few years as wind turbines have become unbelievably efficient," he said. 

According to Logan Goldie-Scot, the head of clean power research at Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), combined solar and wind power capacity has quadrupled since 2010. And in that time, installed wind capacity has increased by 260%, from 41 gigawatts to 106. BNEF expects another 60 gigawatts of wind power to be added in just the next five years.

"The amount of money being invested in wind is staggering, and people don't realize it, but there is a 100% renewable revolution going on right underneath our feet," says Johnson, "This all means the cost of wind-generated electricity to homeowners and businesses is the low-cost solution."

Prices of renewable energy have indeed fallen dramatically. According to BNEF, the cost of generating power from solar photovoltaic (PV) modules has fallen by 90% since 2010, and the price of wind power has been cut in half. In fact, the prices of onshore wind and solar are now even with gas and cheaper than coal and nuclear.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, a world-renowned economist and sustainable development expert at Columbia University, says clean energy now has several advantages over traditional fuels. 

"Renewable energy now is at what is called grid parity. That means it is no more expensive to put up a solar field than it is to put up a coal plant," explains Sachs. "The only difference is the coal plant will pollute the air, kill the people nearby and create incredible climate damage, while the solar will enable clean air and a safe and stable environment and actually put a lot more people to work."

Recent figures show renewable energy employs about 850,000 people in the U.S. (not including some 2.3 million jobs in energy efficiency), as compared to a little more than 1 million in traditional oil, gas and coal. But most of the future job growth is projected to come from clean energy sources.

In fact, the fastest growing occupation in the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, is wind turbine service technician, with a median salary of about $53,000 per year. In total, the wind industry employs 120,000 U.S. workers. Solar installer is the third fastest growing occupation on the list, with a median salary of nearly $45,000.

The growth in renewable energy jobs can be explained by the fact that it is a newer, expanding industry and requires more workers per unit of energy than fossil fuels. Research shows that job creation is inherent in the transition required to combat climate change. "Such episodes of 'creative destruction' are often associated with innovation, job creation and growth," as one study put it. A report by the UK Energy Research Centre concluded that for the same amount of energy produced, renewables required two to five times as many workers as compared to fossil fuels. 

A poll released this week by Climate Nexus, conducted by Yale and George Mason University, finds that a large majority of registered voters in the U.S. believe combating climate change would be good for the economy. About 7 in 10 people surveyed expressed the view that government action on climate change would bolster renewable energy, create jobs and help the economy. Only about one-third thought government action on climate would impose burdensome regulations, weakening the economy and job creation.

CBS News asked Goldie-Scot how much the outcome of the 2020 presidential election would matter for the future of renewables. He says that while the industry would undoubtedly benefit more from a Democratic administration due to Joe Biden's pledge to invest $2 trillion in clean energy and related infrastructure, "the fundamental advantages of renewables will persist despite politics. Renewables are the lowest [cost] form of generation in much of the country and renewables are popular in a number of Republican, and windy, states."

As just one example, the typically red state of Texas is the clear leader in wind energy, generating three times as much as its nearest competitor. Sachs agrees that Republican-leaning states have the most to gain from the surge in renewables. "They could be the leaders in building the new green economy," he said. "This is exactly a heartland issue for the United States."

And back in the heartland, as Johnson sees more and more trainees walking through his door, he says the renewable revolution is well underway. "That's where the jobs are, that's where the wind energy is. It's just free money flying across the sky."