Alaska’s Renewable Energy Careers
Alaska has a well-deserved reputation as a world-leading laboratory for renewable energy innovation, but its renewable energy workforce of less than 700 jobs represents approximately .2% of the 331,358 workers in Alaska – the smallest such workforce in the nation. An April 2018 study by the University of Alaska’s Center for Economic Development estimates the number of renewable energy businesses in the state to be about 100, the majority of which deliver consultation and technical services. Wind technicians, solar PV installers and hydroelectric plant operators are among the renewable energy careers most often singled out as occupations with high potential for future growth on a global and national scale. And while renewable energy training needs do exist in the state, as is so often the case, things scale differently in Alaska.
The Department of Energy’s estimates from 2016 counted 98 solar workers, 37 wind technicians and 469 hydropower workers in Alaska. A single, full-time, certified wind technician can responsibly manage approximately 20 turbines. Kodiak Electric Association, Golden Valley’s Eva Creek Wind Farm near Fairbanks and CIRI’s Fire Island Wind in Anchorage, represent the three largest wind farms in Alaska and combine for a total of 29 turbines. Warrantied, utility scale turbines like those in Kodiak are typically monitored remotely, then serviced and repaired by the manufacturer, not by on-site wind technicians. Alaskans who work on smaller wind farms are typically diesel operators with limited training and charged with a scope of turbine/tower work that does not usually exceed basic preventative maintenance.
Alaska’s Renewable Energy Training Opportunities
Fiscal rationality suggests that Alaska not establish a wind training program in order to ready new fleets of certified wind operators and technicians, even as scores of small wind projects develop throughout the state. Similarly, residential solar in Alaska is surging in popularity, and yet the scalability of a dedicated PV installer workforce is extremely limited. On average, more than 20% of Alaska’s electric energy is generated by hydropower, but the state’s hydroelectric workforce is largely comprised of traditional utility trained diesel generator operators with some site specific, in-house training. There are simply not enough renewable energy jobs in Alaska to sustain stand-alone wind, solar, geothermal or hydro training programs. Interested and determined Alaskans may find occasional in-state trainings within these categories that will enable them to join the ranks of renewable energy workers—but for the foreseeable future they will be infrequent, limited in scope and not accredited.
Renewable energy technologies and occupations hold an allure today that might bear comparison to previous generations’ fascination with the aerospace industry. Few dreamers in the space age became astronauts, but the overarching spirit of innovation paved the way for new technologies and career paths that transformed the world. Renewable energy occupations have the potential to play a similar outsized role in expanding the impact of clean energy, and preserving the climate for future generations. Alaskans should be made aware and proud of the myriad renewable technologies being deployed and tested throughout the state, especially in conjunction with microgrid technologies. Interested Alaskans should be made aware of the many discrete, accredited renewable energy training programs in the Lower 48 and the varied careers where these programs might lead.