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Jobs: The Number One Word Clean Energy Advocates Should Be Using


Clean Energy Jobs and Industry Promotion

By Mark Dennin

James Carville’s old adage, “It’s the economy, stupid!” is once again relevant.

Ads funded by the oil and gas industry featuring job-centric taglines are popping up on national television and buses and billboards all over D.C. Taglines like “I choose jobs. I choose energy,” imply that while renewables may have feel-good qualities like cleanliness and sustainability, fossil fuels still power the economy and provide an abundance of middle class jobs.

There’s just one problem: Clean energy does provide jobs. A lot of jobs. And there is huge potential for many more.

Jobs vs. Environment

Clean energy advocates have become too comfortable with the current “jobs vs. environment” framework. A Sierra Club internal memo leaked to the Daily Caller instructed allies not to overemphasize potential green jobs, and many groups, like NextGen Climate and are focusing on fighting projects whose proponents say create jobs, like building the Keystone XL pipeline and expanding natural gas fracking. These jobs claims are often exaggerated, however; recent reports show that Keystone XL will only create 35 permanent jobs and rosy numbers for fracking jobs take into account large supply chains.

In a tough economy with recent snowstorms that fit nicely into climate deniers’ talking points, Americans can hardly be blamed for supporting the most economical energy source, and clever marketing has them believing that fossil fuels are better for cheap energy and job creation for the near future. After all, unemployment was the number one American concern in February. Changing the conversation is key to winning the hearts and minds of moderates whose primary focus is on the economy.

Pro-Business Allies, Pro-Business Messaging

The clean energy industry already has environmentalists in their corner. Now it needs moderate Americans and entrepreneurs. For clean energy companies today, support from the Chamber of Commerce is worth ten times the support from the Sierra Club. “Carbon free” is not a selling point for the unemployed. Americans want a business that can grow, become profitable, and support Americans jobs.

The notion that oil and gas have cornered the market on quality jobs is false. According to a 2011 report by the Brookings Institution, the clean energy industry actually employed more workers than the fossil fuel industry, around 2.7 million people. The solar industry alone is growing ten times faster than national average employment, with multiple reports showing that solar employs more people than the coal industry. If you are wondering where these opportunities are, Environmental Entrepreneurs has put out an interactive map that highlights clean jobs demand state-by-state.

Not a Zero-Sum Game

The balance between economic and environmental concerns is not a zero-sum game. Choosing clean energy means choosing jobs. Clean energy generated nearly 80,000 jobs in 2013, despite regulatory uncertainty around the expiration of the wind Production Tax Credit (PTC). Supporting initiatives like the PTC will only increase the amount of jobs clean energy creates.

Job quality is also important to take into consideration. Jobs in coal mines and on oil rigs are dirty, dangerous, and hazardous to health. According to ABC News, 50-60 coal miners die every year on the job, while fires and explosions occur much too often on offshore oil rigs. Green jobs, while not without common safety hazards, are much safer.

Clean energy already has working class allies it should be touting more aggressively, chiefly organized labor. Six unions joined the NRDC and Sierra Club, along with other environmental groups, in opposing the building of the Keystone XL pipeline, instead opting for greener alternatives. Middle class Americans need to hear more stories like this.

The fossil fuel industry has been growing since the industrial revolution, for better or for worse. Clean energy is still young, but has proven to have great potential to be a job creator and a significant provider of energy in this country. Aside from the obvious environmental benefits and ability slow climate change, Americans want to hear that clean energy will create jobs and spur the economy.

Advocates would be wise to understand average Americans’ greatest concerns, and show that it isn’t a choice between jobs or the environment; with clean energy we can choose both.

Mark is a Spring 2014 member at the Clean Energy Leadership Institute – an organization devoted to elevating the next generation of clean energy leaders. He recently completed a journalism masters and currently works as a Legislative Manager for the Monument Policy Group. Mark is interested in energy security security issues like decreasing our demand on foreign oil, and climate change issues, especially when it comes to mitigating and adapting to issues like extreme weather and sea-level rise.


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Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on May 26, 2014 4:52 pm GMT

The jobs argument is mostly disingenuous (see Broken Window Fallacy here or here).  Every dollar spent on anything creates about the same amount of job payroll: one dollar’s worth.  For commodities like energy which are components of every product or service we buy, substituting a more expensive version will make us all less prosperous, and a less expensive version will make us more prosperous.

Another differentiating factor is  whether the jobs are local or far away.  Obviously, replacing imported oil with a similarly priced domestic substitute is great for the local economy.  Replacing local nuclear power with wind or solar from another state will have the effect of exporting jobs.

As noted in the article, the quality of the jobs created does vary.  Whether we like it or not, jobs in the oil and gas industry have good pay, and good job security.  Wind industry jobs have historically suffered from boom-bust cycles caused by congress’s fickle funding system.  Solar industry jobs are low skill jobs, and are dooomed to converge with the roofing industry: low pay, long hours in the hot sun, little regard for safety, and staffed completely with immigrants with few options. Nuclear produces a lot of good paying and extremely safe jobs in plant operations and more good paying skilled construction jobs, all are near cities where workers have good quality of life (unlike wind jobs in empty west Texas or oil jobs in isolated Alaska or North Dakota).

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on May 26, 2014 7:17 pm GMT

The statement “multiple reports showing that solar employs more people than the coal industry” is disingenuous.  The linked article clearly states that the solar industry employs more people than coal mining, but does not include coal transport, power plants or downstream users of coal such as the chemicals industry or steel production.  The stat is also based on info from a solar trade group promoting solar and includes all manner of tangentially related operations such as university research.

If the goal is to promote jobs, then clearly “all of the above” is the approach that should be taken, not promoting one industry at the expense of another.

The coal industry industry would see a renaissance if clean coal were to be embraced rather than fought.  Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS) could be an enormous industry employing thousands as new poly-generation plants are built, thousands of miles of CO2 pipelines are laid and CO2 is put to productive uses.

I certainly hope the solar industry grows mightily, but even if it does coal is not going away.  Coal resources are vast and coal is integral to industry and national energy security.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on May 27, 2014 5:28 am GMT

It is a serious fallacy that large quantities of new jobs is always a good thing. You can create jobs and “stimulate the economy” by printing money and using this money to pay one group of workers to dig holes and another group to fill them back up again. Obviously, this kind of arrangement will do more harm than good by wasting part of society’s time/resources on something completely useless. This is an analogy quite often used to point out the errors of Keynesian stimulus.

Another oft-used analogy is that we can create lots of jobs by simply cutting each other’s hair faster. If the government were to subsidize hair salons so that a haircut is essentially free, people will get professional stylings/cuts much more frequently and hair salons would pop up everywhere, creating lots of jobs. The catch is of course that society is paying for these jobs indirectly through increased taxation to fund the subsidies. This reduces the disposible income of taxpayers, reducing demand for more useful goods/services demanded by the natural free market. In essence, this arrangement creates useless jobs and destroys useful jobs, thereby reducing economic efficiency to the broader detriment of the economy as a whole. The continuing decline in US labour force participation rate (currently at levels last seen in the seventies) dispite unprecedented stimulus and other forms of intervention is a case in point. 

Renewable energy, solar in particular, is a typical example of the situations described above. According to IRENA, PV employed 2.3 million people globally in 2013. These 2.3 million people (predominantly Chinese) managed to produce and install about 36 GW of PV over the year. Under the assumptions of a 15% capacity factor, 30 year lifetime and 5% discount rate, this 36 GW of PV is worth about 743 TWh of electricty (NPV). In contrast, the US shale gas industry supported about 600000 (local) jobs in 2010 for an output of 5366 bcf. If all of this is combusted in 50% efficient NGCC plants, this translates into 813 TWh of electricity (NPV).  

Thus, if intermittent solar is valued identically to dispatchable gas, solar PV requires about 4 times more workers per unit electricity produced than shale gas. This is reflected in the LCOE of these different sources.

Energy is the primary enabling resource for economic development. Suggesting that it is actually a good thing if energy is delivered to the economy less efficiently in terms of MWh/worker really is quite dangerous. 

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on May 28, 2014 9:38 am GMT

Nathan, Edward and Schalk have covered the ground already, but for what it’s worth, the famous industrialist Henry Ford said:

“There is one rule for the industrialist and that is: Make the best quality of goods possible at the lowest cost possible, paying the highest wages possible.”

Clearly, the system of subsidising expensive intermittent ‘green’ energy sources which are labour intensive violates Mr. Ford’s rule on all three aspects.

The quality of intermittent energy sources is inherently inferior because of their uncontrollability and unreliability. The cost of such sources in inherently high because of their large footprint in terms of land- and materials-use. And the wages of the average worker are low because it is mostly unskilled work and there is an extreme pressure to keep cutting costs in an attempt to become less economically uncompetitive.

John Savard's picture
John Savard on May 30, 2014 11:34 pm GMT

I see somebody else already mentioned the Broken Window Fallacy. Basically, solar and wind power are more expensive to produce, and that means that any jobs created producing such power will be more than taken away in other parts of the economy.

When energy is plentiful and cheap, then prosperity and high levels of employment follow.

Does that mean we’re going to have to fight tooth and nail with the working class to get rid of coal? There are two clean energy sources that can produce abundant energy on a 24/7 basis. One of them is hydroelectricity.

The other is nuclear power.

Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on Jun 7, 2014 1:11 am GMT

Other than from Doering’s, the critical comments here did an excellent job of exposing how erroneous the argument in this article is. I will add a bit more.

Dennin’s article states: “According to a 2011 report by the Brookings Institution, the clean energy industry actually employed more workers than the fossil fuel industry, around 2.7 million people.” But what the source he links to actually attributed those jobs to was that the clean economy, not the “clean energy industry.”

Moreover, the Brookings summary Dennin links to contains no direct link to the actual report. The report itself notes that defining what constitutes a “clean” job is extremely difficult and inconsistent across multiple sources. The report then notes that its authors defined a “green” job as one in any activity, whether commercial or government, that confers what its authors (subjectively) deem to offer “an environmental benefit.” It appears from the ensuing discussion in the report that the authors did not attempt to assess net environmental benefits, but seemed more concerned with intentions that actual impacts.

So, for instance, any job involved with the production of solar (PV) panels was considered “green” by the Brookings study. As Cloete notes here, China dominates PV manufacturing, and the serious pollution generated by Chinese production practices has been widely reported.

By the same logic, many jobs in the fossil fuel industry should have been (but evidently were not) classifed as “clean.” Not only have major oil companies made substantial investments in various kinds of renewable energy technology. But the vast increase in natural gas production enabled by fracking, horizontal drilling, and related industry innovations has facilitated a substantial shift in electicity generation from coal to gas — accounting for a major share of the observed reduction of the overall “carbon footprint” in the US and elsewhere.

Indeed, as other critical comments here note, by providing comparatively cheap and reliable energy, the fossil fuel industry has enabled a massive increase of wealth throughout the economy. And there is a clear correlation globally between national wealth and environmental protection. So if any environmental benefit equates to a “clean” industry, per the Brookings report’s definition, then all jobs in the fossil fuel industry arguably should be considered “clean.”

More broadly, the comments here emphasing the quality of jobs were on target. Related to that, a 2008 study done of “green jobs” by Pollin et al. was about the only one to that time that attempted to account for the net contribution to employment of green initiatives like solar energy, after accounting for jobs displaced elsewhere. While that study too concluded that green activities (also arbitrarily defined) did add to overall employment, it showed that the quality of the jobs was poorer: for instance, reflecting a shift from jobs with good pay, benefits, and security in manufacturing, fossil-fuel businesses, etc. to more service oriented jobs with lower pay, benefits, often temporary, part-time, or intermittent — such as installing solar panels..

This should not be surprising. The world has historical experience with an economy in which nearly all people were engaged in vigorous labor, and in which all energy was renewable and all jobs were “green.” It was called the Dark Ages.

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