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Updated: February 19, 2024 Focus on Energy

Clean energy jobs are plentiful in Maine, and a trained workforce is stepping up

Photo / Tim Greenway Tagwongo Obomsawin, Clean Energy Partnership program manager for the Governor’s Energy Office, near the solar array at Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth

Even with the lingering winter clouds hanging overhead lately, Adam Little says there’s no better view of Aroostook County than up on a wind turbine.

“You pop your head out the roof hatch, tie off and just sit there and eat your lunch … It’s probably the best spot to eat lunch ever,” Little says. Even a peanut butter and jelly sandwich “hits different when you’re up there,” he adds.

Little is a wind turbine technician at the Oakfield Wind Project, a 148-megawatt facility based in an Aroostook County town of the same name. Commercial operations began in late 2015.

At the moment, the 42 MW Mars Hill project is the only other large-scale wind farm in the county. But with a much more massive wind farm in the development pipeline — the 1,000 MW King Pine project — the local demand for trained wind turbine technicians will undoubtedly swell.

That’s good news for both the state and the county.

Aroostook County’s population has nearly halved since 1966, when it was home to roughly 112,000 permanent, year-round residents, according to a 1968 state economic development report. While some municipalities have seen a surge in interest from families and others seeking small town life in recent years, that uptick hasn’t been enough to counteract decades of population decline.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent estimate shows a population of just 67,255 — roughly that of the city of Portland, four hours to the south. More daunting, the median age is 49, which is about 10% higher than the rest of Maine.

Provided photo
Philip Bartlett, chair of the Maine Public Utilities Commission

Because LS Power, the developer of a transmission line to move power from the King Pine project to the grid, couldn’t adhere to its originally bid price, a new request for proposals will be published sometime this year, according to Philip Bartlett, the chair of the Maine Public Utilities Commission. That will extend the development timeline.

Nevertheless, the local economic benefit is poised to be substantial, albeit deferred.

Longroad Energy projects on its webpage for the project that the roughly 170-turbine facility could generate around $60 million in property tax revenues, $4,000 per turbine in local community benefits and an “estimated $425 million spent with Maine vendors.”

“If you have major construction going on, even if folks are being brought in from other parts of the state, there are hotel rooms and restaurants and particular businesses that are going to benefit from having all that activity and those workers in the area,” says Bartlett. “There’s a lot of different ways that a region can benefit by hosting a project.”

That’s to say nothing of how a 1-gigawatt renewable power project pushes Maine closer to its goal of 100% clean retail electricity by 2040. It also helps the state take steps toward another climate goal: expanding Maine’s clean energy workforce to 30,000 positions by 2030. The goal would more than double the number that existed at the end of 2021, according to a clean energy workforce analysis commissioned by the state in 2022.

“Maine has a really incredibly fast-growing clean energy economy —  as measured by new jobs creation, [it was] actually the fastest of any New England state in 2022,” says Tagwongo Obomsawin, the Clean Energy Partnership program manager for the Governor’s Energy Office.

Available workforce

Still, that trajectory of growth has not appeared to rise in tandem with available workers.

In March 2023, Obomsawin gave a presentation detailing how 60% of clean energy companies had at that point struggled to fill open positions. But stakeholders say the influx of investment coupled with the promise of good-paying jobs may convince some of Aroostook County’s dwindling population of young people to stick around. And a slate of programs is working to cultivate this in-demand workforce.

One that has been run by Northern Maine Community College for roughly 15 years has graduated around 100 students who have since spread out across New England and as far away as Hawaii, according to lead wind power instructor Wayne Kilcollins. Program graduates will understand the basics of electrical and mechanical systems and be able to troubleshoot them.

According to his advisory committee, that “gives them a niche, because a lot of people they’re looking for to fill the slots are not just, ‘once in a while do maintenance and some simple stuff,’" Kilcollins says.

“They want them to really understand circuits, the mechanical and electrical [components], and be able to dig in and find out what is wrong and fix it. That has really been the niche that we found with our training program.”

Wind-specific jobs aren’t the only positions that will need to be filled.

Provided Photo
Kelly Flagg, the executive director of the Associated General Contractors of Maine

Kelly Flagg, the executive director of the Associated General Contractors of Maine, points out that many new construction workers will also be needed for tasks like structural steel erection and foundation installation.

“I think the general public often really narrows what a clean energy workforce means, significantly narrower than it is in reality,” says Flagg.

To that end, she says AGC Maine will use state grant funds to run its pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs, including at least two in Aroostook County that will train around 35 students between the ages of 16 to 20 this year.

Students will receive in-class technical instruction with on-the-job training that could take them into the clean energy sector. Demand for earlier programs exceeded instructional capacity; a program in Brewer last year received over twice the number of applicants than the 50 seats in the class, resulting in a waitlist.

Going forward, AGC Maine’s programs will start including adults looking to make a career change but don’t have much exposure to the various construction career paths.

“Our hope is that we’re training a resilient workforce that is available regardless of what the infrastructure needs look like as a whole and when we talk about Aroostook County,” Flagg says.

Even though much attention and thought is being devoted to projects like King Pine, Longroad notes on its website that it doesn’t anticipate construction starting until early 2028. That’s why it’s critical to balance the timing of workforce development programs to benefit both industry and workers, according to Chad Allen, the director of development at Longroad Energy.

“There’d be nothing worse than to start a workforce development program … let’s say for wind turbine technicians, then train a number of people and then the work isn’t there for them,” he says, later noting his support for the progress AGC has made with its programs.

Nonetheless, he thinks that current programs in Maine, like those run by AGC Maine and Northern Maine Community College, are on the right track.

“A lot of the work they’re doing may not be … germane to a specific project today, but I do think they’re building the workforce that is capable of working in the fields that ultimately will be needed,” he says.

“For instance, take electricians and civil contractors. They may not be working on King Pine tomorrow, but there are other opportunities in the region for them to start to build their skill sets, so that when King Pine is ready to start construction, that workforce is there.”

Room for improvement

Northeastern Workforce Development Board Executive Director Galan Williamson also believes that there’s room for improvement in terms of clean energy businesses and other workforce development stakeholders to understand and prioritize each other’s needs.

“We want to be having conversations with the employers and understand what their needs are so we can, through our network of partners, establish a strong connection between what the technical skills are that are required … and what that need will be,” he says. “It’s an area that we need to have more conversations on, honestly.”

While some jobs may have obvious crossover into the clean energy field, others don’t.

“It goes further [than electricians and heavy equipment operators] to, you know, you’re talking research and engineers,” says Williamson. “It’s pretty fascinating for us to be involved in trying to figure it out.”

But even with the right programs in place, there are still barriers that can hamper prospective students’ ability to enroll and graduate.

Although Northern Maine Community College has been hosting its program for a little over 15 years, both Little and another, now-former wind turbine technician, Jesse Small, says they weren’t aware of the wind turbine technician program until after they had gone through their companies’ own training programs.

Kilcollins says students have found the program through Google searches, college brochures and advertisements on TV and newspapers. He also says the college essentially has developed a pipeline with the human resources teams of the existing local wind operations.

“I think as an industry, we need to do more in advertising or marketing that path to get to those jobs. I think we’d find there would be more interested men and women that would want to go that direction,” says Kilcollins, noting that there’s usually a surge in interest when a site is actively being developed.

He adds that other technical careers, like auto repair, may be more obvious paths for students because “they see them on a daily basis.”

There are also socioeconomic obstacles that are hard for students to navigate without directed support. Because even when a person wants to upskill into a new field and there are economic incentives to do so, “there’s a certain financial sacrifice that sometimes people have to make if they’re going to go through training,” noted Williamson.

“Maybe they have to cut back on the amount of hours they work, maybe it creates certain barriers around childcare, maybe barriers around transportation or there’s [no programs] available in that particular area, so you gotta get on a waitlist,” he explained.

“There’s just so many variables as to why people may decide to move on, it’s one of the things you hear and it’s very, very real for people who have poverty needs. The risk of losing support is huge.”

And unlike in most hands-on careers, Little says prospective wind turbine technicians face another challenge: completing a strenuous climbing test without the mechanical assist that usually aids wind workers, to ensure they can haul their own body weight.

Little recalled another interviewee who tested with him who “did not cut the mustard on the physicality side of things.”

“That’s the ‘make or break’ situation,” says Small. “If you can’t make it up the tower, you’re done. That’s the end of your interview and hiring process. I’ve given climb tests to guys who could only make it a quarter of the way up.”

Plus, although Small says it had been “extremely hard” to hire technicians in Aroostook County when he was with his former team — a problem Little noted his own team faces — Kilcollins says he’s aware of plenty of graduates of the Northern Maine Community College program who want to come back to Aroostook County but don’t feel like there is work for them in the area.

“It’s really rewarding … if you can get beyond those barriers, then you’re for a treat as far as [working] goes,” Small says.

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