Top 5 Ways Green Energy is already Helping American Workers

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

As we celebrate American workers (I prefer to honor workers today rather than the abstract “labor”), let’s remember where their future lies. And that is, in part, in the renewable energy sector.

“Solar Energy in the United States: A Decade of Record Growth”

The rapid growth of wind, solar and other renewables in the United States is already having a significant impact on the work force. But, as Jigar Shah laments, many journalists and others are clueless about this fast-changing landscape, stuck in a past in which coal miners are the real workers.

We geezers grew up on Lava soap commercials, featuring workers who got their hands really dirty, I mean below the epidermis dirty, deep in the cuticles dirty, from manning up and doing manly work. Back in the 50s somebody considered that maybe Lava was limiting its market this way, so they added a bit about how the soap was mild enough for the little lady and the kid, too. But we all knew that only one kind of person needed Lava soap. And that kind of person, the geezers now editing the mass media seem to be convinced, didn’t have the time of day for science fiction daydreams like solar energy.

But in fact there are three times as many workers in the solar industry in the US as there are working in coal mines. And, it seems clear that coal is not the future, and coal miners need government programs to retrain them for other fields, including green energy installation and maintenance. In other words, solar and wind are not chimeras, hollow dreams of beardless idealist environmentalists blogging in their mother’s basement. They are real-world, massive industries that are employing more and more American workers, even as employment in the hydrocarbon sector has been dropping.

The people who can’t imagine this transformation are kind of like the 1899 newspaper editor who doubted there was a future for the noisy, smelly automobile because it would scare the horses.

So here are the facts [pdf], ma’am, for the hard-nosed Joe Friday types still brought to you by Lava soap.

1. Renewable energy employment in the US grew by 6% in 2015 to reach 769,000. A reminder: there are only 74,931 coal miners in the country, about a tenth the number that work in the renewables sector. Renewable energy workers form about 0.5 % of the US work force. But note that the sector is expanding much faster than the general growth rate of the economy and will become more and more important in coming years.

2. In particular, solar employment grew 22% in 2015, to reach 209,000. In other words, this sector grew 12 times as fast as the job market in general. And, 24% of these jobs were held by women, up from 19% in 2013– a bigger share than in oil and gas employment. Over half of these jobs are in the installation of solar panels. About 15% are in panel manufacturing. About 66% of solar jobs were in residential installation, while a little over a fifth were in utility-scale installation and maintenance. A sixth of these jobs were in the commercial sector (go, IKEA!) Remember that only 187,000 or so workers are employed in oil and gas extraction.

Let me just underline that the Chinese may well get ahead of us in the area of manufacturing inexpensive and efficient solar panels, since they are putting billions into R&D in this area. If so, the outcome will be a huge opportunity cost for American workers, since that 15% who work in manufacturing could be a much larger proportion.

3. Wind energy jobs grew 21% in 2015 with 88,000 jobs total in that industry. The US now has 8.6 gigawatts of wind power installed. Note that about a third of Iowa’s electricity, e.g. now comes from wind. The International Renewable Energy writes, ” Manufacturing factories employed 21,000 people; construction, project development and transportation accounted for 38,000 jobs, and operation and maintenance for 29,000 jobs

4. Among the best green jobs in the coming decade will be in wind energy fabrication, green farming, forestry, solar panel installation, green building, and conservation biology. Doing any of these jobs will no doubt require washing up at the end of the day with Lava soap.

5. I was giving 2015 statistics above. But 2016 is looking even better. Already since the beginning of this year, the wind energy industry has added 88,000 jobs! Texas leads in such jobs, with 24,000 wind power workers. By 2030, which isn’t far off and isn’t science fiction, the industry estimates that it will have 380,000 well-paying jobs nationally.

One final point. The fuel for solar and wind is free. At some point in the next 50 years, installation will be done or inexpensive, and the fuel will be gratis. The average worker will likely experience the equivalent of a 6% raise as a result. Inexpensive green energy will put money in all our pockets, instead of Saudi Arabia pickpocketing us for expensive and polluting petroleum.

So here’s to the future of the American worker, a green and prosperous future!

16 Responses

  1. In most of the USA, neither solar nor wind displaces petroleum from Saudi Arabia or anywhere else. Petroleum products are only used to generate electricity in some locations in Alaska and Hawaii. Possibly a few other off grid locations. Yes, diesels are used for backup in case of grid failure but neither solar nor wind will change that very much.

      • Also, hydrogen fuel car prototypes are presently on the road from several different manufacturers. The extraction of hydrogen can be done with solar and wind energy. Petroleum may be limited in the future to things like plastics (and even here there are alternatives, too) and other by products which require only a small percentage of present production.

      • Just plugging the electric car into the grid results in electricity from whatever mixture of generators are supplying your grid. Typically about 30% coal, 35% natural gas and the remainder from a variety of sources. Solar PV has but a small penetration.

        • However, the coal % is falling rapidly.
          Also it is well known that a large number of EV car buyers up to this point are in states which have made more progress towards renewables. And that those buyers are unusually likely to buy solar panels for their homes. Why condemn electric cars as a national failure when products in real life are sold individually in a country with widely varying conditions?

          And to put it bluntly, as a last resort we the people can shut down the coal plants to save our world, but we probably lack the guts to shut down cars.

    • It is true that there is little current competition between oil consumption and wind/solar. However oil and gas are joined at the hip. The same techniques are used to produce both, and many oil wells also produce natural gas, so the price of natural gas affects the profitability of oil producers.

      More direct competition is emerging. From lawnmovers to cars to trucks and buses to heat pumps that displace fossil fuel heating, many applications that traditionally were oil or gas powered are just beginning the transition towards green electricity. Even shortrange airtravel will in the future be electrically powered.

  2. let’s also celebrate Juan Cole, a renewable energy promotion worker, par excellence.

  3. The real problem as JIgar alluded to, is getting the word out. The media promotion money is still in fossil fuels. The oil and gas promotion association funds prime time TV shows, and the media personalities are obliged to help those who pay them. Political candidates of a certain stripe exploit fears of the loss of these fossil fueled jobs. So the public perceives pro fossil myths as truthiness.

    • The problem here probably is one of entrenched power; a successful industry builds up its network of political puppets and propaganda groups over the decades, which it then uses to stave off rising new industries that haven’t built up their own lobbies yet.
      It’s striking that in the UK, the Tory bias in energy policy is towards both nuclear and offshore wind, meaning the industries that are most capital-intensive, while penalizing the cheaper onshore wind industry and ordinary citizens putting solar panels on their roofs. I bet I know where some of that capital is going.

  4. I will be long gone before wind and sun provide even a mere 10% of US power. At the risk of being called a “troll” or curmudgeon, I would say we also need nuclear. And China leads the way with safer nuclear plants.

    • Where does the waste go? There is still no long term depository in the US. Also, nuclear, unless there are significant technological breakthroughs, is not really competitive since the cost of decommissioning is either not figured into the cost of the production of nuclear energy or it is discounted (A pro-nuclear website I visited put the cost of decommissioning as only 9-15% of the cost of construction). Right now it costs almost as much to decommission an old plant as to build a new one. For example, the estimated cost to decommission the two nuclear plants in California are $3.8 and $4.4 billion for Diablo Canyon and San Onofre.

      • The operator of a nuclear power plant pays into a decommissioning fund during the lifetime of the plant. This is sufficient to cover the decommissioning costs.

    • Chinese nuclear plants: safe until earthquake.
      American fracking: safe until it causes earthquake.
      No one is looking out for your safety.

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