CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - 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.
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.
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 told the Casper Star-Tribune (https://bit.ly/2usJpf7).
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.
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.”
But though wind companies are 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.
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 27,000 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. For example, training in wind jobs is being offered.
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.
Workers will come as the farms go up, said Cindy 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.
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, https://www.trib.com
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