Green jobs are still (mostly) promising

Not what you had in mind for the 21st century workforce? Image of coal miners working published 1867 in Le Tour Du Monde.

For a few exciting years, the green-jobs momentum felt unstoppable.

Companies were adopting large-scale energy-efficiency measures. Households were switching to solar, and individuals and families were purchasing alternative-energy cars. The government was supporting sweeping measures to turn dirty energy clean. And jobs — in solar and wind installation, clean car engineering, green building and more — swiftly were being added to the marketplace to meet increasing demand.

Then a political administration advocating for a return to coal and fossil fuels entered the White House, and that momentum seemed to stall.

The shift has left people creating and hiring for these jobs — and those seeking such employment — with lingering questions. What’s the state of green jobs, now and moving forward? Will there still be opportunities for growth? What’s going to happen in the short term and beyond?

We looked through the numbers and spoke with two experts.   

The good news

First, some encouragement: In the green-jobs marketplace, there are many promising statistics and signals. “Clean energy has experienced incredible growth and success in the past decade and is poised to continue leading job growth into the next decade,” said Bob Keefe, executive director of E2, which collaborates with businesses to advance policies that benefit the environment and economy.

According to the Department of Energy, renewable energy employment swelled nearly 18 percent between 2015 and 2016 (2017 figures likely will arrive next spring). Currently, 3.2 million Americans are employed in clean energy — 2.5 times more than those employed in fossil fuels. 

These promising numbers aren’t just a flash in the pan, said Brian La Shier, policy associate in the Energy & Climate Program at the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI), which works with Congress to push clean energy initiatives.

"The cost of these technologies — especially solar and wind — have gotten to the point that you’re starting to see widespread adoption, and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue."

Two industries in particular are propelling job creation: wind and solar. According to recent projections from U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, these are estimated to become the two fastest growing sectors from 2016 to 2026.

A report (PDF) published in May by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) revealed that solar jobs are growing 17 times faster than the U.S. economy. And the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) reported in July that wind capacity under construction or in advanced development grew 41 percent (PDF) between the second quarters of 2016 and 2017.

Projections indicate these numbers are just the beginning. "We expect to see a continued rise in solar and wind energy across the United States," Keefe said. "Job opportunities in energy efficiency will also increase as more businesses, homeowners, schools, local communities and states transition to advanced technologies to save money and combat climate change."

La Shier points out a couple positive overarching trends as well, including the diversity of available jobs; EESI, he said, has studied employment surrounding everything from efficient buildings and appliances to vehicles and renewable energy utilities.

Plus, there’s growth not only in jobs directly related to sustainability, but in those indirectly affected as well, primarily related to the supply of materials to onsite operations. La Shier compares this to the automotive industry, which includes not only car production, but a supporting infrastructure of garages and dealerships. "It’s the same thing with renewable energy," he said. "It’s broader than just the core."  

The (maybe) bad news

Still, many businesses and workers participating — or hoping to participate — in the green economy are understandably concerned about the impact the coal-promoting administration in Washington could have on green jobs now and in the future.

Already there are more solar installers in California than the remaining 60,000 coal miners in the nation, Danny Kennedy, managing director of the California Clean Energy Fund, explained at the GreenBiz VERGE 17 event in Santa Clara in October.

Yet according to La Shier and Keefe, there is at least some reason to be uneasy.

"Rapid growth [in green jobs] may be threatened by the Trump administration's decision to try and make 19th century technologies like coal and gas our only energy source again, while completely ignoring the economic benefits and jobs that come with clean energy," Keefe said. "Attempts in Congress to kill federal support for solar, wind and clean energy R&D, while simultaneously continuing to prop up fossil fuels with exorbitant tax breaks, also threaten the growth of clean energy — and by the way, our future."

Keefe’s point about R&D is particularly crucial. The government long has played a critical role in investing in R&D for renewable energy and energy efficiency, ushering in the next wave of alternative energy resources, particularly in solar.

So it’s troubling that, as La Shier noted, "The current administration has sent out strong signals that [alternative energy R&D] is not something they are prioritizing. Over the long run, the U.S. in particular — which has been a leader in developing these technologies — could find itself falling behind. And this could potentially have an adverse impact on the renewable energy sector."

Trump’s budget proposal pushes for significant cuts across the board for R&D. Budget documents released by the administration in May suggested cutting funding to solar energy programs by 71 percent, and wind energy research by 67 percent. It also suggested appropriating just $20 million to the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, a research program designed to pursue energy breakthroughs — a 93 percent reduction from the $290 million provided by Congress in 2017.

Congress is unlikely to implement such drastic cuts, but nonetheless has signaled it’s on board for shearing. In June, the House Department of Energy bill proposed cutting renewable energy by $468 million less than what Trump suggested — but still, it would slash funding by $968 million over current levels.

Keefe points out other red flags as well — including the Trump administration’s proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan, a reversal that could affect jobs in the renewable energy, energy efficiency, natural gas and nuclear power industries.

According to Keefe, other proposals that could shackle green-jobs growth include a repeal of the Obama-era methane emissions rule for new oil and gas wells plants, a rollback on emission standards for large trucks and moving the EnergyStar program out of the EPA.

The situation isn’t entirely dire; there is too much momentum for green-jobs growth to be completely thwarted, no matter how hard the White House may try. Solar is a particularly telling example.

Several forces are providing a buttress against the erosion of green jobs. Le Shier highlighted, in particular, the efforts of those outside the federal sector, including city and state leaders enacting renewable energy and energy efficiency policies.

The private sector, too, has played an important role. More companies, recognizing the ethical imperatives and business opportunities of embracing clean energy, have pushed to bring more renewables online. This push is rooted in powerful movements to not only highlight the profit potential of going green, but the equity and social justice it can engender; Green for All, to take one example, has made a persuasive case for leveraging a green economy to lift people of color and working families out of poverty.

Plus, multinational companies, La Shier pointed out, operate outside the jurisdiction of just the United States; many have a presence in places such as Asia and Europe, where governments are "very aggressive in promoting clean energy, if not mandating it." Ramped-up efforts on the part of global multinationals, he said, also will help to protect jobs in the face of the U.S. pulling out of the Paris Accord. 

What's next

Green job numbers, particularly in solar and wind, are poised to remain strong next year, despite some discouraging headwinds. But what about beyond 2018?

La Shier said one industry in particular is poised for exciting growth in the long term: alternative-energy transportation. "If you look at a lot of the announcements from the auto industry, they’ve been pushing their fleets to electric alternative fuel vehicles, which could lead to a boom in new types of manufacturing."

This growth is being propelled in part by global policies. India, the U.K., China and France are some major countries that have announced mandates for the phasing out of fossil fuel-combustion vehicles, with a switch to alternative energy. Here in the United States, states such as California have pledged to do the same. 

Already, 259,000 Americans work in manufacturing and engineering in the alternative-energy-vehicle sector, and that’s likely to swell in the coming years. "As far as employment goes, I wouldn’t be surprised if that part of the industry [transportation] percolates more," La Shier said.

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