Help Wanted for Green Jobs
"I said, 'I see windmills,' and everyone kind of gave me a strange look." Vicky Sloan, a humanities professor at Clinton Community College, which serves a rural region in upstate New York, is describing a "visualization" session with a touchy-feely outside consultant, forced on the faculty several years ago by the administration. The consultant had asked the professors to close their eyes and picture their institution's future. "It was so Dilbert," interjects Sloan's close friend June Foley, a professor who teaches psychology at the college. "It was!" agrees Sloan, who lives off the grid, in a log cabin, with her own power generator. "But when I closed my eyes, that's what I saw."
Less than an hour north of campus, along the Canadian border, real wind turbines perform a slow ballet dance over the snow-covered farmland. The windmills look at once gleamingly futuristic and as if they've always belonged there. The landscape is rapidly darkening on this overcast mid-afternoon in December--another snowstorm is expected--but even the most distant turbines can be seen easily, like guiding beacons. Wind farms have become a symbol of clean energy--feel-good iconography used by every liberal entity from The Rachel Maddow Show to Barack Obama's presidential campaign. But here in the Plattsburgh region, they also represent jobs.
Clinton County--part of what is called the North Country--has endured much upheaval in recent years. Plattsburgh Air Force Base--the oldest military post in the nation--closed in 1995 and has been turned into an industrial park, occupied by a mix of biotech, pharmaceutical, engineering and other companies. The area's many small farmers struggle, like small farmers everywhere. Manufacturing jobs have been gradually ebbing. But the North Country is one of the windiest spots in the nation and thus has become a thriving Gold Coast for the wind industry, with five wind farms producing a total of 690 megawatts of clean energy.
Like many two-year college teachers--who don't enjoy the salary or prestige that many of their counterparts at four-year colleges do--the faculty at Clinton Community College have long taken seriously their civic duty to prepare students for the best jobs the local economy can offer. While faculty members like Sloan envisioned a role for the college in the region's wind industry, it was Janice Padula, an environmental science professor and hard-working Democratic Party activist, who made it happen. Working with regional economic development officials, the wind industry and relevant technical experts at the college, she established a wind technician training program to prepare students for the wind industry's most permanent jobs: troubleshooting and maintaining the turbines. The program's first students began in January, as Barack Obama took office. The timing couldn't be better: several of the students have arrived fresh from recession trauma, having just been laid off from FedEx or Wyeth Pharmaceuticals.
Windmills are only modest engines of job creation. A 200-megawatt wind farm--a large one--creates about 300 jobs over the course of its construction. Some of these are union jobs, but all are temporary. A wind farm of the same size requires about twenty technicians to operate and to fix the turbines if anything goes wrong. Such jobs, says Charlie Turlinski, a project manager for Horizon Wind Energy, require a good amount of skill. "The technician job can work well for the farmer's son who knows how to take a tractor apart and put it back together," he explains, but it also requires extensive computer and GPS training. Plus, as Sloan points out, "They have to like climbing really tall towers!" (True, and this wouldn't be fun for everyone: the windmills are 265 feet to the "navel," or axis.) Technicians--nonunion, though there is no reason they have to be--will earn an average salary of $50,000 a year over the lifetime of the wind farm, on average being paid $35 per hour: hardly as good as making cars for GM, but much better than working at Wal-Mart.
Wind energy from the North Country reaches New York City on the state's overstressed grid. One of the buildings that buys it is 1400 Fifth Avenue, the city's first green condominium building--still the only one to include affordable housing units (before the recession, green was as trendy in Manhattan luxury buildings as it was on the runway). Built in 2004, 1400 Fifth boasts the largest geothermal residential heating and cooling system in the United States; despite its location in densely populated East Harlem, it is powered by well water.
In this part of New York City, there are almost certainly more Baptist churches than "green jobs," but 1400 Fifth's resident manager, Hector Norat, has one of the few. Norat is obviously proud of the complex skills and exploratory spirit required to maintain the building: "No one understands the geothermal system, not even the engineers who made it up," he observes, "because it is so new!" Norat's union, SEIU Local 32BJ, offers an energy-efficiency training program for building supers, and Norat has taken many of the classes. He's proud not only of the building's small carbon footprint but that it is so much healthier for the residents. He leads me into the hallway and insists that I observe the building's distinct air quality: "I want you to breathe this clean, light air." Like organic family farmers who are relieved that their kids can play outside without eating pesticides, Norat, who lives in the building, relishes raising his two young children in this environment--especially in a neighborhood where the number of child asthma hospitalizations is ten times the national rate.