Green jobs coming to U.S. from afar

Sarah Gardner Jul 15, 2009

Green jobs coming to U.S. from afar

Sarah Gardner Jul 15, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: Energy Secretary Steven Chu is in Beijing today. He’s there for talks on energy policy, a subject that usually brings with it talk of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. Chu did say China needs to do more to help control global warming. U.S. officials also want China to remove trade barriers that protect its domestic green energy industry from overseas competition. And, eventually, to offer the same opportunities the U.S. extends to foreign renewable firms to come here. Opportunities that are being taken. Sarah Gardner reports from the Marketplace Sustainability Desk.

SARAH GARDNER: On the high plains of northern Colorado, the world’s biggest maker of wind turbines, the Danish company Vestas, has built its first U.S. manufacturing plant. And it’s hiring hundreds of locals.

KEVIN CORY: This is a blade factory. Right now we’re currently running three lines. Uh, when we’re done with construction, we’ll be running six lines.

That’s Kevin Cory. He holds the vaguely European-sounding title of Director of People and Culture. Vestas accounts for 13 percent of all wind turbine sales in the U.S. Now, it’s aiming for more. Cory and another Vestas exec, Roby Roberts, gives me a tour of the plant. It’s on the outskirts of a small town called Windsor. This plant is so big workers ride bikes to get from one end to the other.

ROBY ROBERTS: Until you see it, it’s really hard to fathom, because the scale of these blades, 120 feet. And they weigh, is it nine tons? These weigh seven. When you see them down here they seem so large but when they’re up on the tower, moving in the wind, they’re enormous sails.

Vestas is moving stateside because it’s following the money. Analysts predict explosive growth in the U.S. wind and solar power markets over the next decade. Dozens of states are requiring more electricity from renewable sources. A federal mandate is possible as well. And the stimulus act contains billions of dollars in tax incentives for clean energy. William Ambrose is president of Emerging Energy Research.

WILLIAM AMBROSE: The current policy environment is much more stable than it’s ever been in the past so it’s attracting enormous interest from foreign players at this point.

Vestas’s Roberts says in order to effectively compete in this growth market, his company needs to be closer to the customers.

ROBERTS: These machines are getting bigger and bigger and increasingly more expensive to move around and that can be up to 20 percent of the upfront cost. So we are absolutely convinced that building close to market makes a whole lot of sense.

Vestas isn’t the only one who’s concluded that. Germany’s Siemans, Japan’s Mitsubishi and Spain’s Gamesa are all opening wind turbine plants in the United States. And they’re all going up against General Electric. GE has dominated the U.S. wind market for years. But its foreign rivals are getting a warm welcome from American cities desperate for new jobs. Again, Kevin Cory.

CORY: Most of the workers currently for us here in Windsor came out of the construction industry. Because we were in a big boom here and then it shut off right away.

Colorado has given Vestas tax breaks and other incentives worth more than a million dollars. In turn, the Danish company is spending over a billion on the Windsor plant and three others in the state.

But it’s not just foreign wind turbine makers. China-based Suntech, the world’s largest solar panel company, is planning an American factory next year. Executives boast it’s bringing jobs to America rather than taking them away. Suntech America managing director Roger Efird.

ROGER EFIRD: There’s another reason this needs to be done. And that’s buy American. There are buy American requirements in a lot of the billions of dollars of stimulus monies that are going to green technologies.

Still, that doesn’t mean the American market is falling into the laps of these foreign companies.

At the Vestas factory in Windsor, they’re making blades for wind turbines ordered before the recession hit. New business has nearly ground to a halt. But executives here believe federal stimulus funds will help recharge the wind business by next year. Thirty-year-old production worker Jerry Lukton sure hopes they’re right.

JERRY LUKTON: In my interview I was looking for something with longevity, until I retire, and so far it looks like it’s the place for me.

Vestas says by next year it will employ over 700 local workers at the plant.

In Windsor, Colo., I’m Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.