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Jobs and wind power

According to the American Wind Energy Assoc, a trade organization that includes 2,500 wind-power companies, the wind industry employed 75,000 people in 2010, a drop of 10,000 from the year before. But some are questioning the reliability of these numbers.

It seems the AWEA relied on numbers from the National Renewable Energy Lab, which is run by the Dept. of Energy. According to a report on the MasterResource blog (masterresource.org), the lab got the numbers from a model that estimates gross jobs, earnings, and economic output based on the construction and operation of large wind projects.

A congressional investigation found fault with the NREL numbers, saying they were overstated. Some of the problems, according to the investigators, are that the model doesn’t address new jobs, nor the number of jobs that might be otherwise be created if the funds spent on wind power, were spent elsewhere.

But the investigators’ main objection is that NREL did not validate its model by comparing the actual number of jobs created by real projects to the estimates embedded in the model. The model also neglected to look at the number of jobs lost as wind-power replaced other generation facilities and how higher electricity costs would affect employment. In other words, the model only calculates benefits; it ignores any downside.

It seems the sole source of national job statistics for the wind industry is the AWEA, an advocacy group for wind power. It calculates that of the 75,000 jobs in the wind industry, 60% are in finance, consulting, contracting and engineering services, and transportation and logistics. Only 20,000 are in manufacturing. The rest are in construction, operations, and maintenance. But it is impossible to verify this data because there is no industry code that focuses on wind power or wind turbines and components. The commonly used classifications from the North American Industry Classification Systems (NAICS) lumps wind-related manufacturing under a code for “Turbines and Turbine Generator Sets (NAICS 33611).” By definition, this code covers “establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing turbines (except aircraft) and complete turbine generator set units, such as steam, hydraulic, gas, and wind.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a little over 26,000 jobs that fell into this classification in 2010. If AWEA’s estimated number of manufacturing jobs is correct, then wind would account for most of these NAICS 33611 jobs, which seems unlikely. What also throws doubt on AWEA numbers is that one of its executives has said that 30,000 of the 75,000 wind-related jobs were in manufacturing. This would be a jump of 10,000 jobs in a down economy.

It’s possible these 10,000 new jobs fell under the term “induced jobs,” which are jobs created when newly employed people put cash into local stores and the local economy.

Debunking those anti-wind power myths

There are several myths that overplay the downside of wind power. David Dietle at Revmodo (revmodo.com) tries to set the record straight.

Wind turbines kill too many birds and bats. Wind turbines do kill the occasional bird or bat. But so do airplanes and buildings. Buildings for example, kill far more birds than turbines. (It’s estimated turbines kill one of every 30,000 birds that live near them.)

The myth is based on figures of bird kills in Altamont Pass in California. Developers and researchers built 4,930 windmills close together and in the known flight path of thousands of migratory birds. The turbines are also close together and low to the ground. All this set up a “perfect storm” for bird kills.

Today’s developers build taller windmills that tower over most birds’ flight paths. Modern turbines also have wider spacing and are not built on known bird migration paths.

Turbines add to global warming. Recent studies have shown that the downwind turbulence created by wind farms drags warm air down to the surface. This small effect is unlikely to have a global effect. To do so, there would have to be more acreage devoted to wind farms than to agricultural farms. This is unlikely to happen any time soon, no matter how many people jump on the wind-power bandwagon.

On a positive note, the localized warming effect could be used by farmers to extend growing seasons.

Wind power is noisy. There have been problems with noise and flicker, the moving shadows created by the blades as the y pass through sunlight. But Dietle says they are overrated. A recent study found that the noise generated by a wind farm rarely exceeds that of car going 40 mph. Plus, technological improvements are leading to quieter turbines, and regulations are mandating that new turbines be built farther away from residences.
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