As fossil fuel jobs falter, renewables come to the rescue

In 2011, Don Williams made the long trip from Michigan to North Dakota hoping to capitalize on the Bakken oil boom — to, as he says, “chase oil and make quick cash.” It paid off; for years Williams worked in operations on the oil fields, watching over production and maintaining pump jacks. 

To say that Williams worked hard would be an understatement. Putting in 12-hour days, 7 days a week — 84-hour work-weeks were typical. And the work was lucrative. The money flowed as fast as the oil did — until it didn’t. In May, Williams was laid off, along with most of the Bakken workforce, when boom went bust.

But within a week, he made a huge career leap — 300 feet up, to be exact — ascending from the firm grounds of the Bakken Oil Fields to the top of a giant wind turbine to take part in a 12-week training course to become a wind energy technician. In his words, he no longer wanted to “ride the oil waves, the highs and lows,” anymore.

While the jobs are on opposite ends of the energy spectrum — from dirty to clean and from old to new — the mechanical skills Williams gained from his time working in oil helped him navigate the career transition. And lately, many ex-oil workers are taking that same leap in hopes of finding long-term stability — something that is becoming scarcer in fossil fuels.

Workers atop a 300-foot-tall wind turbine in North Dakota.

CBS News

In the past year, two seismic shocks — a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, followed by global pandemic lockdowns — tanked oil demand and prices too, devastating oil and gas production in the Bakken Formation

From June 2019 through June 2020, U.S. crude oil production fell 38% and natural gas production fell 31%. The unemployment rate in North Dakota rose to 11.3% in June. For the month of August, continued claims of unemployment in North Dakota were nearly 100,000, and about a quarter of those were tied directly to mining, quarrying and oil & gas extraction — the highest unemployment of any sector in the state.

But as luck would have it, fossil fuels aren’t the only energy source North Dakota is rich in. With an average wind speed of 20 mph 300 feet above the ground where the wind turbines churn, North Dakota is prime real estate for wind power. It ranks 10th in wind production in the U.S. with more than 3,000 megawatts (MW) of installed capacity.

Williams says he sees evidence of a renewable revolution right in his backyard, with wind turbines popping up all around his community. 

He received his wind technician training at Lake Region State College, a couple hours’ drive east from the Bakken oil fields. To earn a one-year college credit certificate, the cost of the course is about $5,000. Less than a month out of the training program, Williams has already landed a wind technician job at Gemini Energy Services.

Don Williams and a colleague at work atop a wind turbine in North Dakota.

CBS News

Although he says the starting salary does not quite measure up to what the oil fields paid, the trade-off of more time with his family and more stability is well worth it to him. Besides, he’s optimistic about his future financial prospects because he says the industry offers a lot of upward mobility and areas to specialize in.

Professor Jay Johnson runs the Wind Energy Technician Program at Lake Region State College in eastern North Dakota, and recently he’s seen a big increase in demand. “Wind energy development has been on a tear the last few years as wind turbines have become unbelievably efficient,” he said. 

According to Logan Goldie-Scot, the head of clean power research at Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), combined solar and wind power capacity has quadrupled since 2010. And in that time, installed wind capacity has increased by 260%, from 41 gigawatts to 106. BNEF expects another 60 gigawatts of wind power to be added in just the next five years.

“The amount of money being invested in wind is staggering, and people don’t realize it, but there is a 100% renewable revolution going on right underneath our feet,” says Johnson, “This all means the cost of wind-generated electricity to homeowners and businesses is the low-cost solution.”

Prices of renewable energy have indeed fallen dramatically. According to BNEF, the cost of generating power from solar photovoltaic (PV) modules has fallen by 90% since 2010, and the price of wind power has been cut in half. In fact, the prices of onshore wind and solar are now even with gas and cheaper than coal and nuclear.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, a world-renowned…

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