Windmills in central Washington state. (Sue Misao / The Herald)

Windmills in central Washington state. (Sue Misao / The Herald)

The US wind industry now employs more than 100,000 people

By Brady Dennis / The Washington Post

The fastest-growing occupation in the United States — by a long shot, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — might surprise you: wind turbine technician.

The number of workers maintaining wind turbines, a job with a median pay of about $51,000 a year, is set to more than double between 2014 and 2024, the agency estimates. That’s a more rapid growth rate than that of physical therapists, financial advisers, home health aides and genetic counselors.

There’s a notable caveat, of course. Because “wind tech” remains a small occupation, its rapid projected growth will probably amount to only about 5,000 additional jobs in the coming years. Even so, the proliferation of wind turbine technicians hints at a larger reality: The U.S. wind industry, like renewable energy in general, is continuing to flourish.

In 2016, for the first time, more than 100,000 people in the United States were employed in some manner by the wind industry, according to an annual report released Wednesday by the American Wind Energy Association. The industry grew by double digits once again. The first offshore wind farm became a reality off Rhode Island. And wind was the primary source of new energy installations in much of the Midwest, the Plains states and in Texas, which has nearly 12,000 wind turbines and generates more than a quarter of the nation’s wind energy.

“Getting over 100,000 jobs in wind is an important milestone,” said Tom Kiernan, AWEA’s chief executive. “Sometimes people think of wind or renewables as a niche industry. But the proven reality is the industry is at a scale where we are reliably and affordably contributing to the grid.”

That said, wind energy remains a relatively minor part of the nation’s electricity mix, contributing about 5.5 percent of overall generation in 2016, according to the Energy Information Administration. Coal and natural gas, by contrast, account for nearly two-thirds of U.S. electricity generation. And the solar industry still employs more people than wind, about 260,000.

The wind industry also faces other potential obstacles, such as the gradual phaseout of a key federal tax incentive for wind energy investment that Congress extended in 2015, as well as a new president who has repeatedly criticized it in the past, while giving full-throated support to traditional fossil fuels.

“The windmills kill birds and the windmills need massive subsidies,” President Donald Trump said in an interview with the New York Times shortly after his election last fall. “In other words, we’re subsidizing wind mills all over this country. I mean, for the most part they don’t work. I don’t think they work at all without subsidy, and that bothers me.”

Kiernan said that as turbines become more efficient and cheaper to produce, the wind industry should be positioned to continue to grow even without existing tax incentives. And despite Trump’s rhetoric, he said some members of the Trump administration, namely Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Energy Secretary Rick Perry — the former Texas governor — have shown signs of support. “We are optimistic in working with them,” he said.

Ultimately, it could boil down to jobs. The wind industry employs tens of thousands of people in some of the states where support for Trump was strong: Texas, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas. Kiernan said he hopes that a president who vowed to create jobs will see the value in a sector that is doing that.

“The job growth we’re seeing,” he said, “is nine times greater than the average industry in this country.”

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