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ALE ASYLUM SOLAR PANELS 5.JPG

Marc Nienhaus, an electrician with Faith Technologies, wires solar panels on the rooftop at Ale Asylum in 2014.

Last year, the Clean Jobs Midwest report from the Clean Energy Trust and Environmental Entrepreneurs asserted that Wisconsin had about 26,000 jobs in the clean energy industry — broadly defined as jobs having to do with energy efficiency, renewable energy production, alternative vehicles like hybrid or electric cars, and electrical grid modernization.

It’s not that jobs in clean energy have tripled, according to the executive director of the renewable energy nonprofit RENEW Wisconsin. Rather, it’s that the methodology behind the count that has changed.

“We were always questionably low in past reports,” said Huebner. “There are different sectors of this work that just weren’t being counted in Wisconsin.”

Researchers affiliated with the report wrote in an emailed statement that the main reason behind the shift had to do with how energy efficiency-related jobs were counted. Specifically, the new report features “a deeper dive into the supply chain manufacturing of Energy Star products,” wrote the researchers.

Energy Star is a federal program for certifying products and buildings as energy-efficient.

Under the latest figures, clean energy jobs represent about 2.5 percent of total employment in the state. That “clean energy” share of the workforce trails only Indiana and Michigan among Midwestern states, and is about the same as South Dakota.

Ken Walz, who oversees Madison College’s renewable energy certification program, said he can appreciate why the dramatic shift in tabulation happened. He said that “clean energy” can be a tricky thing to define.

“It’s easy to know when someone’s installing a solar panel on a roof,” he said. “But when you’re talking about an engineer installing energy-efficient systems, that’s harder.”

Regardless, Walz said that the report’s findings of a robust clean energy industry align with what he’s seeing in terms of industry demands for Madison College talent.

“We have more (employers) seeking students than we have graduates,” said Walz regarding the college’s certificate program. “It speaks to the need for more workers in the industry.”

Walz and Huebner described a wide range of jobs that can be described as "clean energy" jobs. Those range from renewable energy manufacturing jobs at the likes of Broadwind Towers, a wind turbine producer in Manitowoc, to solar panel installation. Walz said that roughly half of his graduates work in installation or manufacturing jobs, while another half work in engineering or design-related jobs.

The report found that the state industry is largely driven by jobs associated with energy efficiency, itself a wide-ranging category of employment that includes heating and air conditioning installation and energy-efficient product manufacturing.

Using the new methodology to update older figures, the report found that Wisconsin actually lost 864 clean industry jobs in the last year. However, in the longer term, Walz said that he thinks the job market has been “growing by leaps and bounds,” albeit with some occasional ups and downs.

“There’s always questions about financial incentives, and how they affect the market,” he said, pointing to examples like the renewable electricity production tax credit. “From time to time, incentives are in place. And from time to time, those funds run out.”

Huebner said that RENEW Wisconsin has projected the clean energy industry to grow over the next four years.

He added that he thinks that state is in a healthy place with regard to policy, following the renewal of funding for the state’s energy efficiency and renewable energy program, Focus on Energy. Now, he thinks there needs to be more education about the opportunities associated with clean energy.

“There’s potential to grow this,” he said. “A lot of these jobs are in construction and manufacturing and installation ... a lot of things we already have core competencies in as a workforce.”

The report also found that Dane County is a major provider of clean energy jobs in the state, accounting for a total of 9,970 jobs.

The report relied on an analysis of a database compiled by other industry groups for the annual U.S. Energy and Employment Report. That database itself relies on Bureau of Labor Statistics and employer survey data.

Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.

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