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Climate

The Wind Workers of West Texas

In the Permian Basin, wind is the new oil.

The Permian Basin.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

If one were to go looking for a Permian Basin of wind — a wind energy superregion waiting to be born — the actual Permian Basin wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

Wind potential is everywhere in the U.S., off the coasts and in the Mountain West especially, and the Inflation Reduction Act is expected to catalyze 127 gigawatts of onshore wind by 2030, some of which has already been built. It’s Texas, however, that produces more wind power than any other state in the country. And while neighboring New Mexico has fewer turbines, it was one of the country’s leading installers of utility-scale wind in 2021; last month, Pattern Energy announced it had closed financing on SunZia, a long-awaited 3.5 GW wind farm about three hours northwest of the Permian Basin’s New Mexico portion. Once it’s completed, the project will make the state a national leader in installed capacity.

Texas and New Mexico have, respectively, the most and third-most potential wind capacity in the country. While the bulk of jobs created by wind farms come during their construction, turbines still require long-term maintenance and operation — “Jiffy Lube 300 feet in the air,” Andy Swapp, a faculty member at Mesalands Community College’s Wind Energy Technology program in Tucumcarie, New Mexico, called it. According to data from Revelio Labs, a workforce tracking company, more than 20% of wind jobs created in the past year were in Texas.

There’s no comprehensive estimate of how many wind technicians will be necessary to serve America’s wind farms by 2030, but we can make some educated guesses. In 2022, 11,200 Americans worked as wind technicians, with just under half of them in Texas, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, servicing a total of 144 GW of capacity (including a negligible amount of offshore wind) — about 0.08 jobs per megawatt. (Other estimates range from 0.1-10.8 permanent jobs per megawatt.)

By that math, just for the buildout of onshore wind spurred by the IRA — and leaving aside the 30 GW of offshore wind that the Biden administration has pledged to build by 2030 — the U.S. will need nearly 10,000 new wind technicians, a fair chunk of whom will be living, spending, and paying taxes in New Mexico and Texas.

Regardless of how the actual numbers shake out (many technicians travel between sites, almost everyone who I spoke with for this story told me), they raise a thorny question: How can the nascent wind industry nearly double the size of its workforce in a matter of years — especially where the industry is already strong?

In and around the Permian Basin, onshore wind is primed for a breakout. SunZia’s turbines will sit about 200 miles away from New Mexico’s Lea and Eddy counties, which account for 29% of the Permian Basin’s oil production. Slightly northwest of Lea is the Oso Grande Project, with 247 MW of wind power; Sweetwater, Texas, is surrounded by wind projects ranging from around 40 to 420 MW. The Permian Basin itself has plentiful wind — more than 2 GW — but there is broad agreement that much more of the area is ripe for wind projects.

All of these wind farms, of course, will need technicians, along with managers and operations and maintenance personnel. Pattern, a spokesperson told me, will “prioritize local vendors, suppliers and workforce,” and is building out its own GWO — short for Global Wind Organisation training, which has become an industry standard certification for working at heights — with training partners for SunZia, which promises more than 100 full-time jobs.

To work as an entry-level wind technician, the company asks for a one-year college or technical school certificate, or else a similar amount of experience in wind-power or other related training programs, or some combination of the two. Other employers in the area make similar asks, though a handful require just a high school diploma.

When more wind farms arrive, locals in West Texas looking for local training programs will have a handful of options, including a course at Texas Tech, a paid training institution, and a few community colleges with wind training, four of which are west of San Antonio.

As of summer 2023, roughly 200 students were enrolled in Texas State Technical College programs, Jones told me, and around 75% of them are on some form of financial aid to cover the $13,000 tuition for the 20-month course. Texas’s powerhouse for creating technicians doesn’t always serve its own state, or even the wind industry. Jones’s students don’t always go into wind — some even go into oil and gas — and they don’t always stay in Texas.

Texas Tech’s wind energy program is robust, Suhas Pol, the director of the university’s renewable energy programs, told me, but it’s primarily aimed at sending students into project management, development and engineering. As of this year, he estimated around 100 students are majoring in renewables, but he thinks awareness on campus is low. Pol and his fellow administrators have conjectured that “many folks are not aware that there is such a program available,” he said.

By next academic year, the university is planning to launch a course that offers additional qualifications for students who want to expand on their associates’ degrees, Pol added. Still, he thinks the field as a whole suffers from a lack of faculty to teach students — because so few people enter the industry, not enough can teach others how to join.

Adrian Cadena’s career path is pretty typical of wind technicians in the U.S., at least according to the BLS. Cadena, a former paramedic in San Antonio, was exhausted by the COVID-19 pandemic. While on a road trip in Texas, he wound up pulling over and walking into the middle of a wind farm, where he took out a cell phone and called his wife. “I said, ‘I think I’m done with medicine,’” Cadena told me. “My wife said, ‘I think you’ve lost your mind.’”

While working at a local hospital, Cadena completed a wind training program at a community college. At a clean energy career fair, he landed a job in safety at a small firm based near Houston. That firm paid for his GWOs. Soon after, an opportunity came up at Vestas Wind Systems — one of the industry’s giants — to work as a traveling safety contractor. Then last summer, the call came from another contractor to serve as a project manager on the safety side for Vineyard Wind, one of the country’s first large-scale offshore wind farms, which began delivering electricity just this week.

The federal government is also considering laying its own paths, as evidenced by the launch of the American Climate Corps in September; its first cohort could start as soon as this summer. Other roads leading to wind farms can pass through union-based apprenticeships, although those generally create “well-rounded electricians,” not necessarily wind specialists, according to Bo Delp, executive director of the Texas Climate Jobs Project.

Still, people who understand electronics are in high demand. Many job openings on Indeed across Texas this summer noted that a certification or degree in wind energy is preferred, while experience with mechanics and electronics is typically required, even for entry-level positions. George Jackiewicz, a safety coordinator currently based in Long Island who has worked around the country, told me that “if you’ve got common sense, some mechanical skills, a little bit of electrical, you can get in with zero experience.”

Companies, he explained, will train their own workers, including through their own apprenticeships. In conjunction with Vestas, Sky Climber Renewables runs TOP Technicians. The program finishes out three weeks of training with an assignment at a Vestas wind project. As Jones said, in earlier times “you just came in off the street, they gave you an electrical test and an aptitude test. If you could pass both of those, they could find a place for you. Now there’s more to it.”

In New Mexico, three institutions teach future wind technicians, but only Mesalands has a dedicated wind program and turbine, graduating roughly 20 students each semester, Andy Swapp told me. Unlike TSTC, Mesalands doesn’t give students their GWO certifications, though climbing towers is part of the curriculum.

While TSTC’s Jones doesn’t have much of a recruiting operation, Swapp runs a full-court press, including online ads and trips to high schools for “kid wind” competitions to design turbines, on top of word-of-mouth recruiting from previous students.

“The hardest part of this job is filling the classroom,” Swapp said. “I think if we could fill our classroom every semester, we could meet the need.”

In Lea County, 180 miles away from Mesalands, wind training is scarce, said Jennifer Grassham, president and CEO of the local economic development corporation. She thinks it has to do with demand — too few projects nearby to spur the need for trained technicians.

Meanwhile, a well-coordinated economic engine brings people into oil and gas in Hobbs, the county’s largest city, with 5,808 residents employed in the industry. New recruits can easily find training through company-sponsored programs (the industry norm, according to Grassham); New Mexico Junior College, located conveniently in town; or even the city’s technical high school, which offers “very specific oil and gas training,” Grassham explained.

Individuals interested in entering the field can also easily get a certification ahead of time. One method is to take an online course for around $600 from the University of Texas’s Petroleum Extension, which includes about a week’s worth of work.

“To get a job on a rig is fairly easy,” John Scannell, PETEX’s operations manager, said. “The companies that hire for those jobs, they don’t expect a lot of existing knowledge, so I know a lot of the drilling companies will hire people if they just take our basic overview of working on a rig.”

Lea County’s economic development council is thinking about wind and solar development, Grassham noted, but conversations about the workforce haven’t begun. If more wind farms like SunZia pop up offering hundreds of jobs, that might spur those conversations. “I think we still respond to supply and demand,” she said. “If there was a density around the demand for wind-related job training, the junior college would stand up a wind program almost overnight.”

Even when the demand arrives, workers may still face challenges. Some wind industry workers I spoke to for this story told me they struggled to secure raises, even with years of training and experience. “We really have to take a step back and think about how this transition is going to happen in a way that produces a more resilient economy,” Delp said. “If we build this transition on the backs of workers, we are going to be dealing with the political and economic consequences of that for decades.”

But presuming the industry can train enough people and keep them happy, every person I spoke to emphasized the same thing: Wind jobs are good jobs, especially if working at heights is a thrill and not a deterrent.

Jackiewicz — skeptical that the labor force as a whole will meet the moment at the pace required — is still a booster. “This is the only place I know that where someone without a high school education can earn six digits a year,” he said. “People I meet, I encourage them — ‘hey if you’ve got common sense, you can make a lot of money.’ I would recommend it as long as it’s here. Clean money, dirty hands.”

Yellow
Will Kubzansky profile image

Will Kubzansky

Will is an intern at Heatmap from Washington, D.C. He is also the editor-in-chief of the Brown Daily Herald. Previously, he interned at the Wisconsin State Journal and National Journal.

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