Report from Tehachapi: Why Wind Power Means Jobs, Security
Last week I accompanied a group of veterans who are part of Operation Free on a trip to Tehachapi, CA, located just on the edge of the Mohave Desert in southern California, to learn about wind. There’s a lot of it in Tehachapi —a name that many believe comes from the Kawaiisu word tihachipia, which means “hard climb” — a rugged and mountainous country that was the site of some of the first large scale commercial wind production development nearly 30 years ago, and is the site of continued innovation in developing America’s clean and secure energy future. A future that is threatened unless Congress moves to allow industry to continue to develop and grow this proven, dependable, and clean energy technology by renewing the wind Production Tax Credit (PTC)
We were in Tehachapi to visit Airstreams Renewables, a company founded by wind industry veterans to train wind turbine technicians. The Airstreams course puts trainees through an intensive 25-day, 200-hour program that qualifies them for technician jobs in the wind industry. These jobs can pay anywhere from $50,000 for technicians who work locally to over $100,000 for those who travel. And thanks to Airstreams’ work with city and county veterans support groups and the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, military veterans can use their GI Bill benefits to pay for the entire course. It’s welcome news for veterans in Kern County, where Tehachapi is located, which is running unemployment rates of more than 20%, as well as for those around the country who live in growing footprint of the wind industry.
I talked to Dave Schulgen, Chairman and CEO of Airstreams and a Marine Corps veteran, about future growth at Airstreams and in the wind industry as a whole. “We’re on track to train 500 technicians a year,” Shulgen told me, “and the industry still needs more.” Shulgen estimated that the current demand is for nearly 2,000 new technicians a year. That’s part of the estimated 100,000 jobs that wind production is estimated to produce in the next four years. Jobs that include not just the technician jobs that Airstreams graduates fill but also highly skilled manufacturing jobs. 60% of the components of wind turbines used in the the United States are made here, and wind energy component production has already completely revitalized entire towns that were threatened with losing their manufacturing job base.
Part of the reason for this growth is the Production Tax Credit (PTC). The PTC gives wind producers a 2.2 cent tax credit for every kilowatt hour of energy that they produce. It isn’t a subsidy or a hand-out as producers are credited only for energy produced. The PTC merely reduces their tax burden slightly as a way to spur innovation, growth, and ultimately jobs — like the technician jobs that Airstreams’ graduates are working in right now. The PTC has broad bipartisan support, with backing from Republicans like Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich and form Democrats including President Obama. In a December 2011 event in Iowa, Gingrich advocated for a ten-year-time horizon on the PTC, saying in part, “One of the major problems we have with renewable policies is that the time horizon on the tax credits is too short, and the degree to which they caught up in congressional politics leads to a sort of an up-and-down effect so you can’t get capital investment over time.”
The long-term effects of PTC are already starting to pay off for Airstreams, where a few weeks ago an early graduate from when the program started three years ago started working as an instructor. The ability to build and grow upon knowledge is essential in any industry, and the PTC has helped the wind industry use it’s experience to lower the cost of wind production by nearly 90% in the past decade. Today wind powers nearly 12.8 million American homes, and does so while creating American jobs and reducing America’s dependance on foreign energy sources. The PTC is also helping America create a wind industry that is competitive with foreign efforts. Wind technology is a major area of investment in China and throughout Europe, where government support far outstrips that of the United States. The relatively small bit of tax relief provided by the PTC helps American business compete in this worldwide arena.
Renewing the PTC can protect these gains and create more for the future. At a time when American communities are looking for new jobs and the American wind industry is looking to make them, it would be a shame to lose this opportunity.
Richard Wheeler is a Truman Security Fellow.