Saturday, February 2, 2008

Can We Staff a Cleaner Energy Industry?

This article brings up a side of the climate change mitigation effort that doesn't get a whole lot of attention. If we want to make all of these changes to how we create and use energy, who is going to do the work? For some efforts, changes to the labor force may be simple, such as farmers switching to fuel crops or grid operators learning to better handle intermittent power supply from renewable energy sources. For others, entire new industries need to be created, recreated, or grown at astronomical rates.

According to the linked article, we are building wind turbines faster than we can train technicians with the knowledge of weather and wind power and the grit to climb and service the 200ft towers in day, night, rain, sleet, and snow. Some of these issues may be unique to the wind power industry, but it is not the only technology that could suffer such a shortage. I have also heard Dr. Bryant, PGE Professor at UT and head of that department's CO2 Storage research group, speak strongly for the dire need to educate and train an entirely new breed of engineer if CO2 storage is to be feasible at a large scale. This issue is entirely separate of any concerns with the technology itself. I read an article in Manufacturing & Technology News a while back that stressed that even if public perception and policy barriers to new nuclear power were removed today, the U.S. no longer has the level of expertise or the manufacturing capability to drive a rapid resurgence in that industry.

However the world decides to approach climate change mitigation over the course of this century, it will involve a major restructuring of our material infrastructure as well as of our labor force. A breakthrough technology can be created by one team in a lab, but it takes an army to commercialize it. Lack of a properly trained workforce can be as big a hurdle as any in commercializing new technology, so it will be interesting to see if labor shortages prove to rival other technological and political barriers to energy technologies that seek to mitigate climate change.

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