Ensuring today’s students meet tomorrow’s wind energy workforce needs

In the past decade, U.S. wind power has tripled, becoming the largest source of renewable generating capacity in the country. Maintaining this strong growth trajectory requires an equally strong wind energy workforce—but it’s not merely a question of labor supply and demand. According to a report from NREL, “The Wind Energy Workforce in the United States: Training, Hiring, and Future Needs,” there are other dynamics at play.

For example, hiring managers in the wind industry have trouble finding qualified applicants to fill vacant positions. And, though students are seeking education tailored to careers in the wind industry, they’re struggling to get hired.

NREL researchers reviewed modeling scenarios from DOE’s Wind Vision report to pinpoint education and training program needs. They found that providing 20% of electricity generation from wind by 2030 would require at least 570 new training programs to educate potential workers and reduce a wind workforce gap. They also surveyed nearly 250 wind industry employers and 50 educational institution representatives, and an analysis of responses found that:

  • More than two-thirds (68%) of those surveyed reported some or great difficulty finding qualified applicants across most wind energy occupations.
  • Twenty-five percent of firms looked outside the United States for candidates with the necessary skill set and experience to fill a position.
  • Most students graduating with degrees from wind industry education programs ultimately landed employment outside the wind energy industry.
  • Those who manage renewable energy education and training programs reported difficulties in filling their courses.

WETO is working to effectively bridge this wind workforce gap through activities such as the Collegiate Wind Competition (CWC) that NREL manages on behalf of DOE. Since 2014, the competition has challenged undergraduate students from multiple disciplines to design, construct, and test a wind turbine and participate in project development-related design activities. The CWC inspires tomorrow’s best and brightest wind energy minds to develop solutions to real-life energy challenges, putting their book learning to the test in real time.

A student installs his team’s turbine in a wind tunnel for a test during the CWC 2019 Technical Challenge.

The Collegiate Wind Competition is one of the ways that DOE is working to bridge a potential wind energy workforce gap. Here, a student tests his team’s turbine in the wind tunnel during the CWC 2019 Technical Challenge. Photo: Werner Slocum, NREL

Puerto Rico’s Team Juracán competed in their third CWC in 2019. Because of their experiences following Hurricane María, the students were inspired to go above and beyond the competition requirements to develop real-world solutions that could save lives in the aftermath of a natural disaster. They chose to focus their efforts on providing backup energy to hospitals following a natural disaster.

“We chose locked-out regions that have no connections to anything when disasters happen—no food, no water, no electricity, no internet or way to communicate with anyone,” said Luis Rafael Miranda Rodríguez, the team’s mechanical division lead. “We also wanted to focus on something tangible, like a shelter technology that could power small refrigerators for medications like insulin.”

Ultimately, the team built a prototype based on a simple 400-kilowatt turbine, employing an innovative resin to coat the turbine so that the blade best fit the island’s wind profile.

“Students who participate in the CWC gain real-world experience that gives them a competitive edge in gaining wind energy industry employment after graduation,” said NREL’s CWC Project Lead Elise DeGeorge. “The CWC also allows industry to follow the teams’ innovations and inspire future wind industry workers. In other words, it’s a win-win for students and the industry.”

Building a better wind energy workforce for tomorrow starts with inspiring young innovators today.


Spring 2020 R&D Newsletter

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