Protesters voice their desire a greater focus on renewable energy jobs at the Power Shift Rally of 2011. The rally’s turnout has been taken as evidence that Clean Power Industry jobs are growing in numbers and popularity. Credit: Lihn Do
The environmental movement has long been called the enemy of a thriving economy. This argument has persisted for decades, despite evidence to the contrary put forth by environmentalists and economists alike. The debate over the state of the energy market continues to be one of the most inflammatory aspects of the issue.
Morris K. Udall, a past Arizona congressman and precedent-setting environmentalist, addressed this disconnect in his 1975 speech to the Izaak Walton League of America.
“Don’t let anyone tell you that being for the environment means you have to be against progress,” he said. He went on to describe the ways in which solar power was poised to save the nation money in fuel costs.
This was 41 years ago. Now solar power is one of the fastest growing sectors of renewable energy in the country. The U.S. hit a record high for installed solar panels last fall, just considering residential areas.
Despite such evidence that the environmental is also economic, many Americans oppose renewables solely on the basis of the job market. They argue that with each retired coal plant comes a wave of displaced workers. It has become a question of what environmentalism will mean for the job security and paychecks of average Americans.
A System Overhaul
Today, the energy industry is experiencing some of the most rapid change in its lifetime. Such change is unsettling, especially in an industry that has been mostly stagnant for over 80 years. This is largely due to the nature of public utilities, which traditionally operate under monopolistic principals of little-to-no competition and guaranteed profit.
Renewable energy is turning the market on its head. With the greening of the energy sector, new energy producers are being introduced. Falling prices of new technology and have put renewables in a position for great success.
“The renewable business is a strange kind of beast in that all of the capital investment is made upfront and then there is very little in the way of operating costs,” said Wayne Harris, the director at the Elizabeth City, Pasquotank County Economic Development Commission. In most cases, renewables prove to be well worth the upfront cost.
With renewable energy, there is also little if any need remedy pollution or harmful bi-products of energy production. This saves money and increases the profit margin for renewable energy producers.
“Wind on an unsubsidized basis is competitive with coal because of the cost of mitigating the pollution caused by coal,” said Harris. “That’s a real threat to the industry.”
However, this threat to the old order has citizens worried about job security.
The Challenge of Modernization
Renewable energy producers also introduce a whole new way of doing business. Due to their less resource-intensive nature, renewable energy production facilities usually employ fewer workers than a traditional coal or gas fired power plant.
“If you think about the life cycle of a coal plant, it’s a dirty business. It’s pumping dangerous carbon into the atmosphere but over the life of the plant, there are guys who are mining it, guys who are shipping it. There’s a huge supply chain involved over a 20-year period,” said Harris. “Then with a wind farm, 300 men and women build it and then 10 people maintain it for the next 30 years.”
This assessment is confirmed by the North Carolina Clean Energy Census of 2011. It found that, with the exception of smart grid and manufacturing sectors, the average firms operating in the clean energy sector employed fewer than 10 employees.
“Most of these technologies that save energy also eliminate jobs,” said Harris.
Maggie Clark, the director of government affairs from the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association made a similar argument regarding the temporality of renewable energy instillation jobs.
“Even though the construction job, just like any construction job, may not be a permanent job, its just another form of construction and there are other maintenance jobs that are full time,” said Clark. What’s more, Clark expects that industries like solar power may be able to support more long-term construction jobs as the companies hire workers to update system components as technology improves.
Beyond Job Creation
While attacks on clean energy have been mostly focused on job creation alone, there are other important economic and societal benefits to take into account.
“The bad news [about renewables] is they don’t create many permanent jobs,” said Harris. In the context of a wind farm, there are plenty of short-term job openings during the building of a new power production facility. But when the wind farm is completed, it will only employ 10-15 people.
However, the jobs that are created are of a higher quality. These jobs are typically very high paid, making around $75,000-80,000 annually.
“The good news from a county manager perspective is the county gets $250,000 a year with almost no additional strain on its existing infrastructure—not a whole bunch of extra kids in school, no need for extra roads. They just collect the check,” said Harris.
The types of jobs created are also very different from energy jobs of the past. Jobs are evolving to meet the needs of a changing market with new emphasis on sustainability. Under traditional fuel sources, many jobs are concerned with location and extraction of fuel. By contrast, clean energy jobs are much more technologically advanced and management-oriented.
A job with a utility used to be the safest bet. New employees are now opting for excitement instead.
Renewable energies have infused the market with a drive for innovation. Instead of operating a drill in search of dwindling fossil fuel reserves, new energy jobs will be data-driven and focused on integrating systems.
Energy producers have a greater need than ever before for new and bright minds that will produce the next big innovations. Jobs range from software designing, data interpreting and grid management to cyber security, and research and development of new products and equipment.
According to the North Carolina Clean Energy Census, 3,158 new clean energy jobs were added in 2015 for a grand total of 26,154. Of these new jobs, half are involved in energy efficiency and retrofitting older buildings, followed closely by solar activities. Some of the most numerous jobs in past years have been in areas such as research and development, manufacturing, and energy efficient design.
“Historically, energy efficiency has been the leading employment sector in the clean energy industry,” said Clark. Energy efficiency can encompass jobs from the technical aspects of instillation to energy-conscious design. “Jobs that you may not think of as clean energy sometimes fall into the energy efficiency category.”
Energy efficiency jobs made up 50% of the clean energy job market in 2015, an addition of 1,760 jobs since 2014.
However, these successes are marginal compared to mature clean energy markets in other nations.
Following the Leader: Aspirations for Energy Jobs in America
Germany, one such leader in renewable energy, has seen some of its best economic growth from its Energiewende, or energy revolution. What began as an effort to decarbonize energy production has become a movement that changed the very nature of the German energy market.
As many as 170,000 clean tech start-ups have been born in the wake of the energy revolution, mostly focused on solar energy and efficiency. Patent activity increased dramatically, meaning that innovation is under way. It also led to the creation of 900,000 jobs in the clean tech sector during the past 10 years, with 60% of these jobs in efficiency and renewable energy.
The Energiewende has also proven to be a valuable tool for rural development. As in the US, many of the jobs in renewable energy construction and instillation have gone to citizens in rural areas, where jobs are often needed most. However, while these jobs disappear upon construction completion in the US, Germany has found a way to create a lasting impact.
In a recent talk on the German Energiewende, renewable energy consultant Andreas Von Schoenberg described the successes within rural communities:
“Most forms of renewable energy are installed in the countryside. Our grid ownership is now 35% private,” said Von Schoenberg.
This means that once installed, 35% of German generation facilities are often owned directly by homeowners, cooperatives, or farmers. In closing the loop, the revenue from new jobs and renewable power generation stays within the local community. Significant increases in tax income and gross value added from the creation of the production plants have also brought more money into rural communities.
Von Schoenberg sees such potential within America, particularly regarding our solar resources, which are exceedingly better than Germany’s. The main difference is in policy and ideology.
An Issue of Ideology
According to Von Schoenberg, much of the support for Germany’s Energiewende came from average citizens. They were willing to personally invest in renewables with the belief that it would lead to greater job opportunities and prosperity in their local community. Their investment was largely rewarded.
Germany also passed enabling legislation along with such public support. Community involvement and policy were then able to work in tandem to facilitate the economic and environmental successes Germany has seen with its green energy revolution.