US owners hit by technician talent crunch

Americans go to the polls in three weeks and it feels like the future of the US renewable energy industry is at stake.

Richard Heap
October 15, 2020
US owners hit by technician talent crunch

Americans go to the polls in three weeks and it feels like the future of the US renewable energy industry is at stake.

Too dramatic? Perhaps. Democrat Joe Biden has committed to a $2trn climate plan that would help wind investors, but the industry will be confident that it can continue to thrive even with four more years of President Trump.

Despite the president's personal dislike of wind farms, the industry won a one-year extension of the production tax credit in December. If anything, US wind has been too successful under Trump. Yes, you read that right but hear us out.

We know it always feels churlish to complain about being ‘too successful’. It’s akin to saying in a job interview that your biggest flaw is you’re ‘too much of a perfectionist’. Cringeworthy. But the expansion of US wind under President Trump is now starting to have an impact on how wind farms are managed.

This week, A Word About Wind’s parent company Tamarindo Group released a report called ‘Wind’s Talent Crunch’ with Harvest Energy Services, part of US group RigUp. The report looks at how the current building boom in US wind is leading to a shortage of skilled technicians. This is having a knock-on effect on how wind farms in the US are managed, and puts owners at risk of losses. It also sets out three ways for operators to deal with the problem.

Dark side of the boom

The US wind sector has been through a five-year building boom.

Installed wind capacity in the US grew from 74.9GW at the end of 2015 to 105.6GW at the end of 2019, and an extra 4.4GW was completed in the first six months of 2020. There are now 60,000 turbines spinning in 41 states and the sector supports 120,000 US jobs.

This growth has partly been driven by the PTC, but not solely. The installation figure has also received a boost as firms across the value chain have continued to drive down costs, and ensured wind can compete against fossil fuels.

However, this combination of a growing fleet and falling costs is now causing a shortage of qualified technicians.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics said there were 7,000 wind turbine technicians in the US in 2019, with responsibility for maintaining a fleet of at least 60,000 turbines. As every turbine needs a preventative maintenance check-up two or three times a year, that means there are 120,000-180,000 such check-ups to be performed each year – and that’s before they even start repairing turbines that fail or experience problems. It's a huge and growing workload.

The demands on the technicians are growing too as more operators embrace digital platforms to manage operations and maintenance of their fleets.

All that would be fine if traditional supply and demand economics were at play – but the report says they aren’t. Despite these growing pressures, technicians are under pressure to deliver their services more cheaply as the industry seeks to keep driving down costs.

The upshot is that there are more low-skilled technicians in the field, and the report highlights four specific impact that this has on operators.

  • Use of low-skilled technicians: Contractors use low-skilled technicians to reduce costs, but operators are likely to lose out if those technicians can’t get the turbines working optimally. That is a cost for owners.
  • Too much churn of skilled technicians: With technicians in high demand, contractors can lose top people to rivals. This means owners also lose people with experience of working on their specific projects.
  • Lack of flexibility in O&M: The shortage of technicians means that repairs can only be done when technicians are available, not when the timing would optimise financial returns at the wind farm.
  • Too little focus on training: While contractors are stretched, too few have time to train technicians to achieve their maximum ability.

These all have a direct impact on the returns that operators can gain from their wind projects. The report also suggests three steps that can fix the problem: training for core skills, offering career progression, and better monitoring of on-site activities. You can read the full report here.

The election will no doubt have an impact on the growth of US wind. How could it not? But this skills shortage is an issue that the industry will need to address even if the good times continue.

Americans go to the polls in three weeks and it feels like the future of the US renewable energy industry is at stake.

Too dramatic? Perhaps. Democrat Joe Biden has committed to a $2trn climate plan that would help wind investors, but the industry will be confident that it can continue to thrive even with four more years of President Trump.

Despite the president's personal dislike of wind farms, the industry won a one-year extension of the production tax credit in December. If anything, US wind has been too successful under Trump. Yes, you read that right but hear us out.

We know it always feels churlish to complain about being ‘too successful’. It’s akin to saying in a job interview that your biggest flaw is you’re ‘too much of a perfectionist’. Cringeworthy. But the expansion of US wind under President Trump is now starting to have an impact on how wind farms are managed.

This week, A Word About Wind’s parent company Tamarindo Group released a report called ‘Wind’s Talent Crunch’ with Harvest Energy Services, part of US group RigUp. The report looks at how the current building boom in US wind is leading to a shortage of skilled technicians. This is having a knock-on effect on how wind farms in the US are managed, and puts owners at risk of losses. It also sets out three ways for operators to deal with the problem.

Dark side of the boom

The US wind sector has been through a five-year building boom.

Installed wind capacity in the US grew from 74.9GW at the end of 2015 to 105.6GW at the end of 2019, and an extra 4.4GW was completed in the first six months of 2020. There are now 60,000 turbines spinning in 41 states and the sector supports 120,000 US jobs.

This growth has partly been driven by the PTC, but not solely. The installation figure has also received a boost as firms across the value chain have continued to drive down costs, and ensured wind can compete against fossil fuels.

However, this combination of a growing fleet and falling costs is now causing a shortage of qualified technicians.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics said there were 7,000 wind turbine technicians in the US in 2019, with responsibility for maintaining a fleet of at least 60,000 turbines. As every turbine needs a preventative maintenance check-up two or three times a year, that means there are 120,000-180,000 such check-ups to be performed each year – and that’s before they even start repairing turbines that fail or experience problems. It's a huge and growing workload.

The demands on the technicians are growing too as more operators embrace digital platforms to manage operations and maintenance of their fleets.

All that would be fine if traditional supply and demand economics were at play – but the report says they aren’t. Despite these growing pressures, technicians are under pressure to deliver their services more cheaply as the industry seeks to keep driving down costs.

The upshot is that there are more low-skilled technicians in the field, and the report highlights four specific impact that this has on operators.

  • Use of low-skilled technicians: Contractors use low-skilled technicians to reduce costs, but operators are likely to lose out if those technicians can’t get the turbines working optimally. That is a cost for owners.
  • Too much churn of skilled technicians: With technicians in high demand, contractors can lose top people to rivals. This means owners also lose people with experience of working on their specific projects.
  • Lack of flexibility in O&M: The shortage of technicians means that repairs can only be done when technicians are available, not when the timing would optimise financial returns at the wind farm.
  • Too little focus on training: While contractors are stretched, too few have time to train technicians to achieve their maximum ability.

These all have a direct impact on the returns that operators can gain from their wind projects. The report also suggests three steps that can fix the problem: training for core skills, offering career progression, and better monitoring of on-site activities. You can read the full report here.

The election will no doubt have an impact on the growth of US wind. How could it not? But this skills shortage is an issue that the industry will need to address even if the good times continue.

Americans go to the polls in three weeks and it feels like the future of the US renewable energy industry is at stake.

Too dramatic? Perhaps. Democrat Joe Biden has committed to a $2trn climate plan that would help wind investors, but the industry will be confident that it can continue to thrive even with four more years of President Trump.

Despite the president's personal dislike of wind farms, the industry won a one-year extension of the production tax credit in December. If anything, US wind has been too successful under Trump. Yes, you read that right but hear us out.

We know it always feels churlish to complain about being ‘too successful’. It’s akin to saying in a job interview that your biggest flaw is you’re ‘too much of a perfectionist’. Cringeworthy. But the expansion of US wind under President Trump is now starting to have an impact on how wind farms are managed.

This week, A Word About Wind’s parent company Tamarindo Group released a report called ‘Wind’s Talent Crunch’ with Harvest Energy Services, part of US group RigUp. The report looks at how the current building boom in US wind is leading to a shortage of skilled technicians. This is having a knock-on effect on how wind farms in the US are managed, and puts owners at risk of losses. It also sets out three ways for operators to deal with the problem.

Dark side of the boom

The US wind sector has been through a five-year building boom.

Installed wind capacity in the US grew from 74.9GW at the end of 2015 to 105.6GW at the end of 2019, and an extra 4.4GW was completed in the first six months of 2020. There are now 60,000 turbines spinning in 41 states and the sector supports 120,000 US jobs.

This growth has partly been driven by the PTC, but not solely. The installation figure has also received a boost as firms across the value chain have continued to drive down costs, and ensured wind can compete against fossil fuels.

However, this combination of a growing fleet and falling costs is now causing a shortage of qualified technicians.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics said there were 7,000 wind turbine technicians in the US in 2019, with responsibility for maintaining a fleet of at least 60,000 turbines. As every turbine needs a preventative maintenance check-up two or three times a year, that means there are 120,000-180,000 such check-ups to be performed each year – and that’s before they even start repairing turbines that fail or experience problems. It's a huge and growing workload.

The demands on the technicians are growing too as more operators embrace digital platforms to manage operations and maintenance of their fleets.

All that would be fine if traditional supply and demand economics were at play – but the report says they aren’t. Despite these growing pressures, technicians are under pressure to deliver their services more cheaply as the industry seeks to keep driving down costs.

The upshot is that there are more low-skilled technicians in the field, and the report highlights four specific impact that this has on operators.

  • Use of low-skilled technicians: Contractors use low-skilled technicians to reduce costs, but operators are likely to lose out if those technicians can’t get the turbines working optimally. That is a cost for owners.
  • Too much churn of skilled technicians: With technicians in high demand, contractors can lose top people to rivals. This means owners also lose people with experience of working on their specific projects.
  • Lack of flexibility in O&M: The shortage of technicians means that repairs can only be done when technicians are available, not when the timing would optimise financial returns at the wind farm.
  • Too little focus on training: While contractors are stretched, too few have time to train technicians to achieve their maximum ability.

These all have a direct impact on the returns that operators can gain from their wind projects. The report also suggests three steps that can fix the problem: training for core skills, offering career progression, and better monitoring of on-site activities. You can read the full report here.

The election will no doubt have an impact on the growth of US wind. How could it not? But this skills shortage is an issue that the industry will need to address even if the good times continue.

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