Clean energy is moving from trend to business-as-usual, but skilled labor is proving hard to find
Minnesota and our country are in the midst of a massive and historic energy transformation. Until recently, fossil fuels — primarily coal — ruled the day. Each year, our state spends billions of dollars importing fossil fuels in the form of coal, oil and natural gas. But in Minnesota, that story is changing, and the implications for our economy are exciting.
Change is happening largely due to the drastically falling costs that have made wind and solar more economically attractive, even without federal subsidies. As recently as last year, wind prices fell below the cost of natural gas, marking a new day in the energy world.
The unprecedented cost declines of renewables mean two things for Minnesota: We’re keeping more money in-state by utilizing our homegrown energy resources, and we’re achieving milestones set in state statute years ahead of schedule. Over the past four years, renewables share of in-state electricity generation rose from 21% to 25%, achieving our state’s goal of reaching 25% renewables by 2025 a full seven years early.
As the amount of power from renewables increases, so too do the jobs that our Minnesota companies create. Today, more than 59,000 Minnesotans are employed in the clean-energy sector. And the sector is growing at a rate twice as fast as overall state’s economy. Those jobs aren’t just concentrated in the Twin Cities metro as 40% of clean-energy jobs are located in Greater Minnesota, according to the 2018 Clean Jobs Midwest Report.
Some of those jobs are being provided by Werner Electric, based in Cottage Grove with operations across the state, including St. Cloud, Owatonna and La Crescent. The company has been around since the 1920s and has grown into a substantial electrical distributor, specializing in automation, clean energy, lighting and electrical products.
Recently, Werner Electric identified energy storage as an emerging market they wanted to dedicate more resources to. Energy storage is a fast-growing technology that captures energy when it’s produced (like solar- and wind-generated power) so that it can be used at a later time.
“As a supplier of sustainable-energy solutions, we recognize that our customers need to find a way to control high energy demand costs. Energy storage offers a solution that will allow customers to meet that goal by initiating standby energy storage during peak time loads and reduce their demand on the electrical grid,” says Randy Moberg, energy solutions and services manager at Werner Electric.
Moberg adds, “We also see that many of the solar systems around the Midwest often produce excess energy, and storage will allow them to keep that excess energy and utilize it during high-demand periods which also means significant savings. We anticipate that energy storage will be as big and perhaps bigger than solar in our market.”
iDEAL Energies is a Minneapolis-based commercial solar energy developer with much success under its belt. Its background represents a quintessentially Minnesota clean-energy business story.
“At iDEAL Energies, we’ve had a front-row seat to Minnesota’s explosive solar growth. Even in the last year, solar jobs have grown by 48% across the state, and we can proudly say we’re part of that growth. Since our founding in 2010, we employ 35-plus employees and 50-plus contracted positions at iDEAL today. We have found success by working with both small and medium-sized commercial projects deployed across the private and public sector with more than 300 projects delivered to date,” says Chris Psihos, president and CEO of iDEAL Energies.
Psihos adds, “We’re particularly proud of our partnerships with area school districts like Eden Prairie, helping these public schools realize immediate solar revenue across all of their district buildings. Likewise, our work with large companies like Schneiderman’s Furniture allows us to help companies generate immediate energy savings and meet their sustainability goals.”
As successful as iDEAL and Werner have been in tapping into the clean-energy market, they report increasing difficulties in hiring the skilled labor they need to do their work.
And they’re not alone. Clean Energy Economy MN (CEEM) is an industry-led nonprofit that provides the business voice for clean-energy companies across the state. Nearly all clean-energy businesses CEEM works with report difficulty in finding the skilled construction, electrical or other trade workers they need to keep up with customer demand.
Working with stakeholders to find a solution to the workforce issue is just one of many issues CEEM has been tackling. The organization helped pass a bill this past session that increased Minnesota’s attractiveness as a market for energy-storage development. (This provision was in the 2018 Omnibus Supplemental Budget Bill which was vetoed by Governor Mark Dayton due to other concerns).
There is much to be excited about when it comes to the value clean-energy businesses are adding to Minnesota’s economy. Clean energy is a growth engine that is driving job creation and investment throughout the state. It’s shaping Minnesota’s economy for the better — and that change is good for everyone.