Rebuilding Our Economy - One Bolt at a Time

Jun 20, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

Bob Drake used to work for an auto industry parts supplier.

When he joined that company, it had 120 employees. By the time he was laid off in 2008, "they were down to about 20." Jobless at 56, Bob was fearful about his prospects for finding work, and deeply concerned about supporting his family.

Thankfully, Bob's story, unlike the story of so many who worked for the auto industry and its thousands of component supplier companies, has a happy ending. Several months ago, he landed a job with Cardinal Fastener, a small Bedford Heights, Ohio-based firm that makes bolts for wind turbines and other industrial products. Cardinal employs Bob on a thread roller, the same machine he used to run for the auto parts company, so his transition has been a smooth one for all concerned.

Cardinal has its own success story, quite a bit like Bob's. Its bolts are already used in some hallowed American icons, including the Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge. Now its products are a small but critical piece of a new icon--the modern wind turbine. Over the past eight years, Cardinal has doubled in size and is continuing to expand its business and add new employees to serve the wind energy industry.

What's the big deal with bolts? Well, Cardinal Fastener's bolts are used in four critical areas of a wind turbine -- the foundation, towers, blades, and nacelles -- and there are a couple of thousand bolts used in each turbine. Last year, the wind energy industry used 2.4 million bolts in new installations alone. Today's wind turbine is a modern miracle of engineering. With more than 8,000 parts, it's larger than a Boeing 747 and combines complex, high-tech electronics gear with an industry average of over 200 tons of steel and around 13 tons of fiberglass.

All of those parts, ranging from steel tower sections to wind direction sensors, mean one thing: new manufacturing jobs.

America's manufacturing sector has been losing jobs for decades, but as the move toward using more renewable energy like wind and solar accelerates, those industries are beginning to buck the trend. Last year, in the face of a collapsing economy, the wind industry added 35,000 jobs, for a one-year increase of 70 percent. In 2007 and 2008, the industry announced or expanded more than 70 factories.

These numbers are modest on a nationwide scale, but still good cause for optimism. Here's why: there are at least 16,000 companies employing over 1 million people that could manufacture wind energy turbine components in the U.S., and Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis says, "We can expect that many green jobs will pay 10 percent to 20 percent better than other jobs."

Wind energy's growth is all the more remarkable given that it has occurred despite a decade of on-again, off-again federal tax incentives that has led to several booms and busts.

Now Congress is considering a new approach -- a national Renewable Electricity Standard (RES), which would require that renewable energy sources be used to generate a minimum percentage of the electricity our country uses within a certain time frame, such as 25 percent by the year 2025.

An RES would provide the first long-term national commitment to renewable energy -- the commitment that businesses need to invest billions of dollars in new manufacturing plants. Not surprisingly, studies of the RES conclude that it would result in the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, the 25-percent-by-2025 RES would create 297,000 jobs.

Once these jobs are created, they are likely to stick around. One of wind power's great virtues is the predictable cost of the electricity it generates. It uses no fuel, so the cost is not affected by fuel price spikes and speculative bubbles; and it creates no emissions, so there is no risk of future cost from emissions regulation as there is with fossil fuels.

So far in Congress, however, opponents of the RES have succeeded in watering it down so that states would find it easy to meet the targets without adding significant amounts of renewable energy. This is a problem, and not just for the renewable industry. Our analysts estimate that the RES currently being considered would leave more than 100,000 new jobs on the cutting-room floor.

Wind energy can literally help us rebuild our economy, one bolt at a time, one worker at a time, one factory at a time -- but only if Congress passes a strong Renewable Electricity Standard.