As residents discussed possible futures, renewable energy naturally surfaced. Iowa officials had been promoting “energy independence” as a job-creation strategy. A startup firm called Central Iowa Energy had begun hiring former Maytag workers for a plant that would turn vegetable oil and animal fat into biodiesel. Windmills were producing power elsewhere in the state. Add Newton’s pool of skilled manufacturing workers, Beurle says, and “people were able to connect all the dots and say, ‘God, this is a sweet spot here.’ ”
That day the Newtonians crafted a vision statement that said, in part, “We strive to create systems that fuel the world with renewable energy.” Local officials set off to recruit wind companies.
Meanwhile, TPI Composites, which supplies blades for General Electric turbines, was looking for a domestic manufacturing site. With wind power growing exponentially in the Upper Midwest, it was not cost-effective to ship six-ton blades from its factories in Mexico and China. “Proximity matters,” says the Newton plant’s general manager, Crugar Tuttle. TPI liked Newton’s location and workforce, and government incentives helped clinch the deal.
The facility opened in September 2008: a brightly lit hangar of a building with high ceilings, steel beams, and concrete floors that supervisors traverse on bicycle and tricycle. Working around the clock and weekends in four shifts, workers cut large, silky fiberglass sheets and lay them onto enormous sea-green molds along with resin and glue. The molds are folded shut, heated, cured, and finally sanded and painted. “It’s a craft,” says human resources manager Terri Rock—and indeed the place feels more like an indoor shipyard than a factory. That’s no surprise for a company founded as a boat maker.
For Barnes, the former Maytag employee, working at TPI has meant coming full circle. In the 1970s he installed solar panels and small wind generators, but the timing was wrong and his employer went under. A devotee of Mother Earth News, Barnes waited for a time when renewable energy would become viable. TPI’s arrival, he says, “brought back hopes in my mind that the world’s coming back around.”
One area where TPI does fall short is wages. At $13 to $15 an hour, it doesn’t match the union scale Maytag offered, which typically exceeded $20. Still, the pay is competitive for the county, where entry-level manufacturing wages average $14.39. Plus, working in Newton—rather than Des Moines, 35 miles away—means shorter commutes. “You’re not going to make much more anywhere,” Barnes says. “And you’re going to have to pay that big gas bill.”
TPI now employs 318 Newtonians and expects to reach 500 by year’s end. Another GE contractor, Dallas-based Trinity Structures, has moved into a former Maytag factory in Newton and is staffing up toward 140 employees. Counting the biodiesel plant’s 24 workers, Newton has become something of a green-collar hub.
What’s ironic, says Charles “Chaz” Allen, Newton’s mayor, is that the town never set out to become an environmental leader. “Jobs were our focus,” he says. “TPI and Trinity changed our mindset.” With so many alternative-energy companies nearby, residents have started discussing how they can reduce their own fossil fuel consumption. “We talk about, ‘How do we get a windmill put up in Newton?’ ” Allen says. “Two years ago we would have never had those discussions.”
Is what’s good for Newton also good for America? Clearly that’s President Obama’s assumption as he focuses much of his job-development efforts on the green-collar sector.
The stack of studies confirming Obama’s thinking grows taller each year. In September researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst forecast that a two-year, $100 billion federal investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency would generate two million jobs “across a broad range of familiar occupations,” including welders, electricians, truckers, and scientists. (The report was co-published by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank.) Clean energy is more labor-intensive than fossil fuels, says Robert Pollin, co-director of the university’s Political Economy Research Institute, and more of those jobs will be in the United States.
Other researchers using different models have arrived at similar conclusions. University of Tennessee agricultural economist Burton English found that extracting one-fourth of the nation’s energy from crops like switchgrass would generate 5.1 million jobs by 2025, most of them in rural communities. Suzanne Tegen, a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, looked at Arizona, Colorado, and Michigan and concluded that new wind-power facilities would benefit the states’ economies more than fossil fuel plants. In February, Vice President Joseph Biden’s office released a report saying that green jobs pay 10 to 20 percent more than other jobs of all types—in some cases up to $50 an hour in wages and benefits.
“Green-job creation is not some kind of myth,” says Dan Kammen, a professor in the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s not a small effect. We find that there’s three to five times more jobs generated per dollar invested in green technology than when you do additional fossil fuels. It’s a significant producer of new economic activity.”