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Wyoming’s wind is in demand, but does it have the workforce?

Wyoming’s wind is in demand, but does it have the workforce?

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On a June morning north of Medicine Bow, wind technicians Brian Hail and Jesse Green drove their pickup down the dirt paths of Dunlap I, a wind farm owned by Rocky Mountain Power.

The sun was making its way up the sky, and the wind was starting to blow. One by one, the 74 turbines kicked in, swinging their blades in near unison.

The techs needed to check on a turbine that wasn’t working. But they were short a hand, Hail said.

“They are scrambling to try and fill his position — that’s why we are running kind of light,” he said. “This area is kinda slim pickings as far as technicians go. A lot of people don’t want to drive an hour home every day. That’s part of it.”

Medicine Bow is a cluster of gravel and dirt streets running off the elbow of the highway that connects Casper to the north and Laramie to the south, larger population centers where there are jobs, movie theaters and places to fill your tank.

It takes about five minutes to walk the full breadth of the town, if you mosey. The central store is a historic hotel that used to be in demand when the town was an important hub on the railroad. Now neighbors and family chat over the grill in the wood-paneled restaurant that serves burgers topped with chili to the few who stop in.

College kids from Laramie may flood the streets of town during a summer music festival, but on a recent June morning, all was quiet.

The area is a population desert. The towns between the windswept fields are small. Gas stations are sparse.

But this small, mostly forgotten corner of the West has one thing in such abundance that it outstrips most of the United States: winds that blow fast and often.

Wind energy has found favor with some and stoked anger in others in the Equality State. Loyalty to oil, gas and coal is strong, and wind has a reputation for being a liberal industry, propped up by taxpayers’ subsidies, pushed onto the electricity grid by unfair policies in green states — all while coal falters. Natural gas production booms, but the price is low. Oil has its own troubles.

Some say there is another, more fundamental problem with wind: Where will the people come from?

***

Wind capacity in Wyoming would double if all the proposals on the table for new farms are realized. Firms like the Power Company of Wyoming, Viridis Eolia and Rocky Mountain Power are all looking at large-scale development. And they will need workers — first to build the farms and then to staff them for maintenance and repairs.

In the first stages of wind development, a rush of construction will demand boots on the ground in the region.

Power Company of Wyoming’s proposed Chokecherry Sierra Madre wind farm near Rawlins could employ nearly 300 people in the second half of 2017, according to estimates made in its application to the state. Those numbers will ebb and flow over the course of development. In mid-2019 nearly 1,000 people could be constructing the farm.

Medicine Bow has fewer than 300 residents.

They don’t have people, and they can’t keep the new people who arrive, said Gary Jones, a resident of nearby Hanna, population 814. Jones doesn’t have a gripe with the wind industry, but he doubts companies can staff the farms proposed for Wyoming’s wind alley.

“It’s a bigger challenge than anyone is addressing,” he said.

The mostly older residents of these small communities have seen big projects falter after a stream of promises of revenue, stores and jobs.

A coal project, proposed by DKRW Advanced Fuels, was planned for the region for more than a decade. Then it failed.

“The community is very poor,” Jones said. “People wanted that coal plant. It broke people’s hearts.”

By the end, people in Hanna and Medicine Bow went back to their daily routines, tuning out the latest news on DKRW’s failings, he said.

Jones is distrustful, worried the same is coming in regard to wind.

Others disagree. They say the need for workers is a barrier but a surmountable one.

In short, the market will take care of it, said Rob Godby, director of the Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy at the University of Wyoming.

“The same thing happens in the oil and gas industry,” he said. “Look at the middle of nowhere, places like Wamsutter (a tiny town in the center of a large gas field, 100 miles west of Medicine Bow). No offense to those places, but there are techs that have to be out in those fields that live in the area or nearby … Prior to getting their jobs, Wamsutter wasn’t at the top of their list.”

The wind techs servicing the Dunlap farm both live within an hour’s drive of the farm.

Hail is considered a veteran in the wind industry, with 12 years under his belt. He’s been with UpWind Solutions, the contractor Rocky Mountain Power uses to staff its farms, for about six months.

Green is happy to drive the hour from Laramie. Hail lives in a small town nearby — Elk Mountain. It’s worth it for the steady job with good benefits, they said.

“It’s not as high-stress as most other industries,” Hail said of the wind business. “It’s not like a manufacturing job, where if something breaks, heads are going to roll.”

***

The pushback against wind has caused some frustration for its proponents. Wyoming is the only state with a wind production tax, $1 per megawatt hour. It was instituted to even the playing field. The fossil fuel industries pay a fair share in taxes, and wind should, too, proponents say. Others argue that it’s a risky policy that could shut Wyoming out of a burgeoning industry.

“We are looking at this as a great opportunity in Carbon County, and the one thing that we hopefully won’t have is the Legislature looking at raising the wind tax one more time,” said Cindy Wallace, executive director of the Carbon County Economic Development Corporation. “Why would they want to do something to squelch an industry that is going to be bringing billions of dollars into the state?”

The wind tax increase failed in the legislative session earlier this year, as did a penalty tax on power generation from renewable sources in the state.

In a battle of us versus them, wind is on the other side of the trenches. But some minds are changing. Though wind farms won’t provide the jobs or the level of tax income that coal mines do, they could be yet another of the state’s rich resources churning up revenue that keeps taxes low and communities healthy.

Regulators approving the Chokecherry Sierra Madre wind farm near Rawlins received letters of support from Gov. Matt Mead, the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority, the Carbon County Economic Development Corporation, the Carbon County Commissioners and the city of Rawlins.

Funding shortfalls have decimated the state’s revenue streams and forced severe cuts to state agencies, county budgets and to everyone’s dismay, Wyoming’s public schools. The severity of the downturn may have turned some in favor of wind.

Rep. Steve Harshman, a lawmaker and coach at Natrona County High School in Casper, stood up in a public meeting held by wind manufacture Goldwind Americas Wednesday and said he’d changed his mind about wind.

He still has reservations that many in Wyoming share: a loyalty to the fossil fuel industries, distaste for turbines obstructing the view and eagles killed by wind blades.

But looking around at the room of workers who may be trained in the wind industry, Harshman said he was reminded of when the coal industry took similar steps, with a similar promise of an energy “revolution.”

The state was producing only about 1 percent of the nation’s coal at the time, but companies saw a new demand and readied themselves to meet it, according to Godby, the UW economist. More than a decade after those coal informational meetings, training seminars and promises, coal was providing about 40 percent of the nation’s electricity needs, most of it from Wyoming.

Viridis, and the manufacturer set to manage Viridis’ proposed farm in Medicine Bow, Goldwind Americas, are trying to get the workforce ready now — or at least find out how many Wyomingites they can tempt into the wind industry.

The wind seminar that Harshman attended was one of three across the state, in Rawlins, Casper and Gillette. There was a fair turnout, with the largest crowd in windy Rawlins. Most of the men and women at the Casper session came from the oil and gas fields.

“There will be a real demand for people,” said Godby, the economist. “It won’t be enough to offset the losses we may have had in coal mines or other sectors, but it would help.”

***

The idea that Wyoming’s fossil fuel workers may enter the wind industry has attracted significant, if overblown, attention. The possibility has been printed in media outlets far from Wyoming’s windy towns, a response to the recent prominence of the fossil fuel industries’ woes in national politics.

But though Goldwind is offering another option to workers suffering from the downturn in existing industries, it’d be disingenuous to call wind an even trade for Wyoming’s industrial labor force.

Tom Gallagher, an economist at the state’s Department of Workforce Services, said the majority of wind workers may not be retrained industry workers. The economics of oil, gas and coal jobs versus employment in the wind industry are so different, he said.

For roughnecks who made $100,000 in a good year, or coal miners netting more than $70,000, the step down might not be possible, even for a good steady job that falls in line with their skill sets, Gallagher said.

Right now Wyoming wind techs make less than they would in other states, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. In Iowa, the second-largest wind state, the mean wage is $29 an hour. In Wyoming, it’s $21, or about $43,700.

People tend to spend what they earn, Gallagher said. Buying a house that you can afford on a roughneck or mining salary can put you in a bind if you switch to a lower income.

“You have a built-in economic barrier,” he said. “It’s a very pragmatic issue that people are facing.”

In that situation, people may leave the state, joining the workforce of a more robust economy across the border in Colorado, he said.

And the losses in Wyoming recently are stunning.

About 25,000 people disappeared from Wyoming payrolls between 2014 and 2016, the two-year slope in the state economy, according to a report Gallagher is writing, comparing the recent bust to historic downturns.

The wind industry is more likely to attract students coming out of high school or in community college, he said.

Industries find different strategies to pull in employees, said Godby, the UW economist. Goldwind, for example, is offering training.

In some cases, a company will locate where the workforce already exists, and Wyoming has experienced the losses as firms pass up the Cowboy State for population bastions like Colorado, he said.

Companies looking to develop wind farms in Wyoming aren’t here because the wind techs are. They are here because the wind resource is so great, he said.

From the Power Company of Wyoming, which is close to breaking ground on the first phase of a 1,000-turbine wind project near Rawlins, to Viridis Eolia, with its proposed Medicine Bow farm 50 miles away, companies will have to pay workers what it takes to keep them, he said.

Simply put, the market and company initiative will likely solve the current worker shortage, he said.

“This issue of where you are going to get the workers in Wyoming is not unique to Wyoming, but companies can take steps to deal with that,” Godby said. “As long as these are competitive-paying jobs, it’s just a matter of effort to find those people.”

***

Back on the Dunlap I wind farm, Hail and Green are suiting up to climb a turbine with idle blades. The 260-foot climb is the hardest part of the job. But Hail loves his work and is quick to pitch the values of it.

“Compared to the oil fields, which is the other big employer out here, wind is a lot more stable,” he said, speaking to the heart of Wyoming’s losses in the last few years: the mass layoffs in coal country, staff cuts at service companies and oil firms. “You might get bought and sold, but more than likely, if you are a good, hard worker, you are just going to change shirts.”

Workers will come as the farms go up, said Wallace, of the economic development corporation in Carbon County. She sees shops lining the streets, families settling in, businesses to fix, maybe even manufacture, equipment for the wind industry.

“I think we’ll be seeing a resurgence,” she said.

Jones, the man from Hanna, is flummoxed by the assumption that workers are available, especially in the long term. But he wants it to happen. He wants the wind industry, local and state governments, to buck up the town’s spirits with some investment. He wants a gas station, maybe a Dollar General store, he said.

Otherwise these companies are going to have to pull in wind techs from North Dakota, California and Iowa, he said. Jones, who manages some properties in the area, meets the itinerant wind technicians from time to time. They live out 60-day to six-month contracts in the middle of nowhere and leave as soon as they can, Jones said.

“They come here, and they freak out,” he said. “It’s like a depression.”

And if the town can’t hold onto employees, he said, it won’t grow as promised.

Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner

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Energy Reporter

Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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