Wind and solar supply chains thrive in Midwest states
By Kari Lydersen
March 10, 2015
Wind and solar energy support about 30,000 jobs at about a thousand companies in Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa, according to a series of reports released by the Environmental Law & Policy Center over the past two weeks.
The reports show the jobs created not only by the manufacture of wind turbine components, the building of wind farms and the installation of solar panels, but also in related businesses from banking to making cables and glass.
“We continue to be impressed by the robustness and the diversity of these jobs,” said ELPC executive director Howard Learner. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all. There are headquarters and manufacturing and construction jobs, retrofitting jobs, legal and insurance jobs, design and engineering, it’s really a diverse mix of skills for all types of companies.”
The ELPC is a member of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News.
The supply chains have remained robust even as wind and solar have faced policy uncertainty at the state and federal level.
The ELPC and other groups say the renewal of the federal Production Tax Credit is crucial to future wind development and its supply chain impacts. The Siemens wind turbine blade plant in Fort Madison, Iowa laid off more than 400 of its 660 employees in 2012 because of uncertainty over the PTC. Many of those workers were rehired when the PTC was extended, the ELPC report notes, but now the credit is again in limbo.
Meanwhile the federal Investment Tax Credit which supports solar installations is in effect through 2016, with proponents hoping for a renewal.
In all three states and across the Midwest, federal grants under the USDA Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) pay up to a quarter of the cost for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects at farms or small rural businesses. In 2014 Congress authorized continued funding of $250 million for five years.
The ELPC released its Iowa report on March 5, just before a major agricultural summit in Des Moines where Republican presidential hopefuls discussed their views.
Learner said renewable energy and the federal tax credits will likely be an issue in the presidential election, and the special role that Iowa plays is notable since public support for wind power in Iowa is strong.
Iowa leads the Midwest in wind capacity installed, with 5,178 MW. Illinois is second with 3,578 MW. In 2013 and 2014 Iowa got more than a quarter of its power from wind.
Iowa’s solar development is the lowest in the Midwest, with only 4.6 MW, compared to almost 10 MW for Ohio, 49 MW for Indiana, 43 MW for Illinois and 22 MW each for Wisconsin and Michigan. But Learner said he expects solar development in Iowa to accelerate after a court ruling last year that protected third-party financing.
In Iowa, the ELPC report says, 47 companies are involved in the solar supply chain and 75 in the wind supply chain. Solar installation, manufacturing and supply creates 680 jobs in the state. Overall, the clean energy supply chain supports 4,000 jobs.
The report credits the vibrant wind industry manufacturing scene in Iowa for both the state’s support for wind energy and to Iowa’s general attractiveness to manufacturers thanks to its skilled workforce and transportation infrastructure.
State policies that support the wind industry include a state sales tax exemption for wind industry materials and equipment. The state also offers tax credit to corporations who enter the state’s New Jobs Training program and expand their employment base by 10 percent a year. Tax credits are also offered for “high quality jobs” that meet certain wage and other requirements.
Examples of the wind supply chain employers in Iowa include Anemometry Specialists, which makes towers for meteorological monitoring for wind farms; and Conductix-Wampfler, which employs 95 people at a factory in Harlan making rotor pitch controls and an alternative to copper cable for wind turbines.
The proliferation of wind farms in Iowa is an incentive for factories to locate there, since products don’t need to be transported far. For example, Siemens’ Fort Madison plant is supplying blades for more than 500 turbines being built as part of MidAmerican Energy Company’s $2 billion investment in wind power in Iowa.
Iowa wind manufacturers also sell their products nationally and globally. For example Conductix-Wampfler is developing cable specifically for offshore wind power. Keystone Electrical Manufacturing in Des Moines has a $2.2 million contract to supply wind substations in Oregon, Washington and Pennsylvania.
In Iowa as elsewhere, wind manufacturers are taking advantage of manufacturing infrastructure from days past. For example, the Trinity Structural Towers plant in Newton, Iowa opened in the site of a former Maytag washing machine factory.
“You see old-line manufacturing companies retooling to produce clean energy,” said Learner.
Solar components are less likely to be manufactured in the Midwest, but the installation of solar panels and related tasks provide many jobs. Eagle Point Solar, the company at the center of the state Supreme Court case that upheld third party financing, employs 22 people doing solar installations in Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin. Eagle Point and other companies not only install solar power but also in many cases own the installation and sell the power to the homeowner, business or organization.
There is also some manufacturing related to solar in Iowa, for example a DuPont plant in Fort Madison that makes a film used to help protect solar panels from harsh weather. Baird Mounting Systems in Waterloo makes mounting equipment for solar panels as well as antennas and satellite dishes. And PowerFilm in Ames makes thin film solar modules that are mounted on RVs, golf carts and batteries.
“States that get the policies right will drive solar development,” Learner said. “There’s an enormous number of jobs in installation, wiring.”
Wisconsin has very little wind power installed, with only 648 MW. But it is actually home to more companies and clean energy supply chain jobs than in Iowa. There are 316 companies in the solar supply chain and 231 in wind, and 6,800 total people employed, the ELPC report says.
That’s thanks to the state’s rich history as a manufacturing hub, its transportation infrastructure and its research institutions – including the Energy Institute and Solar Energy Laboratory at UW-Madison and a public-private energy storage lab at UW-Milwaukee.
Companies include Cardinal CG, which makes glass for solar panels; DH Solar makes solar installations that track the sun; Applied Plastics makes a plastic used for the molds of wind turbine blades; and Faith Technologies, an employee-owned electrical contractor that installed 800 solar panels at Kohl’s stores in Wisconsin.
The report calls renewables Wisconsin’s only source of “domestic energy,” as the state does not produce natural gas, coal or uranium. The report notes that after years of bipartisan support for renewable energy, the state has “reversed course” as Gov. Scott Walker, the Republican legislature and the Public Service Commission have pushed policies hostile to renewable energy development.
Illinois is home to 170 wind and 237 solar supply chain companies, employing a total of about 20,000 people. There are about 70 solar and 50 wind companies in the Chicago area alone, including 13 corporate headquarters of national and global wind energy companies.
The Illinois companies are notable for their size, with an average of 26 employees. Companies are clustered in the Chicago area along with Rockford, Peoria and other former manufacturing hubs.
Corporate headquarters in Chicago include Goldwind, the top manufacturer of wind turbines in China, with plans to build manufacturing plants in the U.S.; Gaelectric North America, a company developing wind projects in the UK and Ireland and also a 430 MW project in Montana; the German manufacturer Nordex; and Acciona, a global company in the running to provide renewable energy to the Department of Defense.
Legislation introduced last month to “fix” structural problems with the state’s Renewable Energy Standard and also to increase the solar carve-out and the renewable goals in the standard could boost the Illinois wind and solar industry significantly.
New companies have sprung up, while other companies that have been around for decades have started making components for wind and solar energy – like Finkl Steel on Chicago’s South Side, LB Steel in suburbs south of Chicago or Brad Foote Gear Works, a company in the suburb of Cicero that has been around for almost 90 years and remade itself as a wind energy supplier.
Learner noted that S&C Electric Company, a factory that supplies electronics for wind power, is just blocks from his home on the north side of Chicago.
“This is the Midwest, where we make things,” he said.