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In oil-rich North Dakota, alternative energy advocates tout job growth

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Jay Johnson is the Director of the Wind Energy Technician Center at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake, a program he started ten years ago. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 5
Jay Johnson and Wyatt Gilbertson get a view of the Devils Lake region from 260 feet above atop a wind turbine near Devils Lake this week. Johnson is the director of the Wind Energy Technican Center at Lake Region State College and Gilbertson just completed his wind energy technican certification. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald3 / 5
Wyatt Gilbertson, 19, received his certificate as a wind energy technician this weekend at LRSC, and is in the final stage of getting a job in the industry in Hettinger, ND. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald4 / 5
Jay Johnson and Wyatt Gilbertson run tests atop the school's wind turbine near Devils Lake. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald5 / 5

Unlike many recent college grads, Wyatt Gilbertson won’t need to wait long to land a job.

Friday, he received his certificate in wind energy technology at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake. At 19, he’s already lined up a final-stage interview with a wind energy company in Hettinger, N.D.

Gilbertson and his classmates expert to earn anywhere from $25 to $35 an hour working as wind technicians. Climbing hundreds of feet above the ground, wind techs help make sure the state’s growing number of wind turbines continue to run smoothly.

The only requirement? A one-year certificate.

“I heard it’s a growing industry,” Gilbertson said of wind energy. “I’ve heard there’s good money for people willing to work.”

In North Dakota, oil and other traditional fossil fuels are still king, but the clean energy sector is growing. Companies across the state continue to recruit workers like Gilbertson to meet the needs of the burgeoning wind and ethanol sectors. Both locally and across the country, North Dakota is seeing a growing appetite for wind energy and ethanol.

Shifting tides

In North Dakota, wind turbines now generate about a quarter of all electricity in the state, according to state and federal data. That number has been increasing within recent years.

In 2016, wind energy generated 22% of North Dakota’s energy, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Last year, that figure grew to 26%, marking the fourth-highest share of wind power in the country, according to EIA. The percentage of coal-generated electricity has fallen from 70% in 2016 to 66% last year.

“We’ve heard people talk about the energy revolution,” said Jay Johnson, director of Lake Region State College’s wind energy technician program. “Well, it’s here. It’s happening.”

The college rolled out the program 10 years ago. Since then, it’s averaged about 10 students a year, said Johnson, a former newspaper reporter and editor who went on to work in the wind energy industry.

Where wind energy grows, jobs follow. As of 2018, more than 9,000 North Dakotans are working in the “clean energy” sector, marking a 4.3% increase over the prior year, according to data from think tanks Clean Energy Trust and E2.

The organization defines clean energy jobs as those relating to energy efficiency, clean fuels and renewable energy generation, including wind power.

However, the number of so-called clean energy jobs is still far below those in gas and oil.

According to a report from Job Service North Dakota, there were 30,818 oil and gas jobs in the state in 2016, the latest year for which state data is available. Still, that figure marked a downturn from a high point of more than 62,000 jobs in 2014.

North Dakota isn’t alone in clean energy job growth, according to E2. While the organization has been observing “steady job growth” across the U.S., the Midwest is something of an outlier.

“The Midwest is outpacing other parts of the country as far as clean energy job growth,” said Gail Parson, director of engagement at E2.

She cited an abundance of renewable resources in the region among the reasons for the Midwest’s job growth.

Local impacts

LM Wind Power, which manufactures blades for wind turbines, now employs about 900 people at its Grand Forks plant. As the demand for wind turbines increases, the company is looking to hire about 100 additional workers, said Tricia Weber, senior manager of human resources at the Grand Forks facility.

Kristy Goering, team lead for molding at LM, is one of the hundreds of employees currently working at the Grand Forks plant. Each day, she oversees a team of about 12 workers as they fashion new wind tower blades.

A former restaurant worker, Goering has been with LM for more than 12 years. She had no factory experience prior to her time at LM, she said.

For Goering, the blades’ potential impacts on the environment is a source of pride.

“I like my job,” she said. “You’re helping the environment. It’s a proud thing to make something for clean energy and the environment.”

LM leaders maintain that the Grand Forks plant is “ideally positioned” to serve the U.S. wind power market.

“Grand Forks’ location and transportation infrastructure gives the company access to a large portion of the market where the wind farms are being built in the U.S.,” said plant director Jagadish Rao. That includes the Midwest, mountainous regions to the west and the Southwest, he said.

Though Rao declined to name specific customers, he said the growing demand among clients is for even bigger blades.

“As machines get bigger and bigger to drive down costs, it is important that LM Wind Power is able to design longer, lighter, more affordable blades to power these enormous machines,” he said.

‘Not about politics’

The politics around wind and other forms of “clean” energy can get messy at times. Last month, President Trump told attendees at a National Republican Congressional Committee that the noise from wind turbines can cause cancer -- a claim that several scientists have since debunked. On a more local level, Rep. Mike Brandenburg, R-Edgeley, this week faced a tense confrontation with another North Dakota legislator at a meeting on wind turbine regulations.

Brandenburg, a wind energy advocate, told a Forum News Service reporter that Rep. Jeff Magrum, R-Hazelton was “screaming” and “out of control” as the two were trying to hash out setback requirements for wind turbines.

For those working in the wind energy field, the back-and-forth is of little import.

“It’s not about politics,” said Lake Region’s Johnson. “It’s about economics. It’s about engineering.”

To be sure, there have been some efforts among North Dakota leaders to bolster clean energy, at least on the ethanol front. Under former Gov. John Hoeven, the state put into place an ethanol producer incentive program. The state set aside money to help offset financial difficulties ethanol producers might face early on in their business.

Jeff Zueger, CEO of ethanol producer Midwest AgEnergy Group, called the program “innovative.”

“It’s very unique,” he said. “It’s kept plants in North Dakota potentially from shutting down, where they have in other states.”

At present, there are five ethanol plants throughout the state.

North Dakota’s business climate has been another plus for some ethanol producers. Keshav Rajpaul, BioMass Solution LLC, said he’s found the state to be “quite helpful” as his company builds a new ethanol plant in Grand Forks. BioMass is constructing the 80,000-square-foot Red River Biorefinery, which will convert sugar beet waste into ethanol.

“We certainly haven’t faced any issues with anyone going to throw up any roadblocks,” Rajpaul said. “It’s been nothing but really positive from our perspective.”

Though the company plans to ship its ethanol to companies in California, its business will still have a positive impact on the state, Rajpaul said.

“From the state of North Dakota’s standpoint, I think the positive for the community is obviously it brings more value in byproducts that are considered waste,” he said. “Think about it as revenue coming in from out of state.”

Growing ethanol demand

Traditional corn-based ethanol has helped local farmers, too, said Paul Thomas, vice president of the North Dakota Corn Growers Association. He pointed to the construction of the Midwest Ag Energy’s Blue Flint ethanol plant near Underwood, N.D.

“For our area, the construction of the ethanol plant has been very beneficial,” Thomas said. “Essentially, what it has done is increase the demand for corn in our area.”

Ethanol is typically mixed with traditional gasoline. As momentum builds for increased percentages of ethanol in gasoline, ethanol producers are facing some heat from petroleum makers. When ethanol was mixed at 10% or less, the oil industry was more supportive.

“Now that ethanol is moving beyond that 10%, I think the oil industry as a whole sees ethanol as a threat to market share,” Thomas said. “They have not been, as a whole, supportive of any provisions that make it easier for ethanol to compete in the market.”

At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency recently unveiled a proposed rule that would allow for gasoline blended with up to 15 percent ethanol to be sold year-round. It was previously limited to sales for nine months of the year.

Kari Cutting, vice president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said the focus among all energy producers in the state is to work together and “not fight each other.” For instance, North Dakota’s EmPower Commission brings together energy producers of all kinds to the table. The commission was created by the Legislature in 2007.

“The state works very well to have an all-of-the-above energy policy,” said Cutting.

Dan Niepow

Niepow covers social and community issues for the Grand Forks Herald. Before joining the paper, he worked as a magazine writer and editor. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he currently resides over the river in East Grand Forks, Minn. To reach Niepow with story ideas, send him an email at dniepow@gfherald.com or call him at (701) 780-1110. Follow him on Twitter @dniep.

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