Book offers ground-level view of industry’s growth

Source: Nick Juliano, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, May 3, 2012

As the wind industry argues that tens of thousands of U.S. jobs will be lost unless Congress extends its prized tax credit, a new book aims to flesh out the stories of those workers as part of a broad examination of the industry’s growth.

Author Philip Warburg was flanked by photos of several of the small-town residents whose communities embraced wind energy as he discussed his book, “Harvest the Wind,” at a Washington, D.C., reception yesterday.

Warburg set off in 2009 to travel across the United States, Denmark and other countries to track the growth of the wind industry. Among his stops was Cloud County, Kan., whose population peaked in 1910 and has been declining ever since. He points to a community college training program for wind-farm workers there that grew from just four students in 2007 to more than 100 today.

Kirk Lowell, who runs Cloud County’s economic development agency, appears in the book as a pragmatic backer of wind who sees it as more of a jobs engine than a mechanism to clean up the environment.

“Not surprisingly, people like Kirk Lowell don’t think a whole lot about global warming and certainly don’t talk a whole lot about it; that’s not what his motivation is,” Warburg said during the reception yesterday that was hosted by the Environmental Law Institute. “I wish it were a more pervasive motivation, but it’s really not once you get out there to the heartland. He does care about American energy independence, and he does care that lots of kids from Cloud County have gone off to fight wars in the Middle East.”

Warburg, a former president of the Conservation Law Foundation, a New England environmental group, also visited manufacturing plants that are thriving because of the wind industry. One is a Timken plant in Ohio that adapted its “million-mile bearing” to allow wind turbines to run for 20 to 25 years.

While the industry employs tens of thousands of Americans — and says it can grow to more than 250,000 people if wind expands to provide 20 percent of the nation’s energy by 2030 — jobs are at risk over uncertainty surrounding the looming expiration of the production tax credit, which will disappear at year’s end unless Congress extends it.

Warburg’s book cites a study from the financial firm Lazard Ltd. that estimates a wind farm’s 20-year leveled cost at $65 to $110 per megawatt-hour, compared to new coal plants at $69 to $152 per MWh or new gas plants at $69 to $96 per MWh. But without the tax credit, wind costs would rise as much as $20 per MWh, making them less able to compete with traditional sources of electricity.

Wind companies and their main trade association, the American Wind Energy Association, have made winning an extension to the production tax credit a top priority for this year, stressing that workers already are being laid off because developers are generally holding off on purchasing turbines for next year amid the uncertainty. AWEA has said 37,000 jobs will be lost this year if the credit is not extended soon

The credit has broad support in Congress on account of the industry’s significant presence in generally Republican-leaning states and districts, but an extension is not expected to become law until at least the post-election “lame duck” session at the end of this year.

Two efforts to extend the credit already have been blocked in the Senate by a Republican filibuster, because they combined the credit extension with more controversial proposals such as eliminating oil industry tax breaks or reinstating expired stimulus programs. The House has not yet considered an extension of the tax credit, although it won broad support from both Republicans and Democrats who testified at a hearing on tax extenders last week.