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Jennifer Granholm and the golden opportunities of clean energy jobs

The new Energy Secretary's nonprofit, The American Jobs project, looked at how regions could become world leaders in critical technologies.

Jennifer Granholm TED 2013

Last week, former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm got a new job: U.S. Secretary of Energy. 

Much has been written about how she is sure to support clean energy, from grid investment to clean energy deployment. Just as important is Granholm’s understanding of clean energy as a potential job creator. 

“Oh, there's more than a one-to-one replacement,” Granholm said in an NPR interview, when asked if there are enough clean energy jobs for displaced fossil fuel workers. “There will be millions of jobs that will be created in clean energy.”

Nothing exemplifies Granholm’s understanding of clean energy’s economic opportunity than a lesser-known line on her resume: founding the nonprofit The American Jobs Project (AJP) while serving as a guest professor at the University of California, Berkeley. 

The American Jobs Project and what it tells us about Granholm’s priorities 

Beginning in 2014, AJP released a series of rigorously researched reports that identify individual states’ strategic advantages to become leaders and create jobs in specific emerging advanced energy technologies. Advance energy, as defined by AJP, includes technologies that make energy smarter, cleaner and more efficient.

The approach was brilliant. Instead of looking back to U.S. industries that were waning or exporting fundamental aspects of their operations — say, coal or steel — Granholm looked at how regions could become world leaders in critical technologies, all while creating good-paying jobs that cater to different education and experience levels. 

It identified economic clusters — a variety of linked industries and institutions such as suppliers, specialized services, universities and nonprofits — to make the case for why a region is particularly well-suited to become home to a cleantech industry. The approach not only would create jobs; it would create regional pride in an industry and a connection to the clean economy, according to AJP.

Granholm’s work was geared towards creating jobs to replace those lost in the Great Recession. While some of the specific research may be outdated, the pandemic means our need for jobs isn’t much different than in 2008 — except today the sector is much more mature. 

AJP also recognized the window of opportunity America had to become a global leader in clean energy innovation. As Granholm starts her new job, that window has closed to just a crack, with other regions, including China and Europe, outpacing the U.S. in clean energy innovation and job growth. For example, the U.S. is currently dependent on China and other trading partners for much of its battery supply, which will impact this country’s rollout of electric vehicles and solar-plus-storage systems.

AJP ultimately created 24 state reports between 2014 and 2019, with specific policy recommendations and roadmaps for each. Below is a summary of three reports from purple states: New Mexico, Wisconsin and West Virginia. 

New Mexico and advanced solar


NM Advance solar

Potential number of jobs created in New Mexico: 6,800 annually

The technology: “Advanced solar technologies” are products that go beyond photovoltaic solar panels. For example, flexible perovskite solar cells can be used in glazing to enable colorful, electricity-producing glass buildings. Microscale solar cells, or “solar glitter,” can be embedded into flexible, lightweight materials such as fabrics and used for applications from aerospace to emergency response. Thin-film solar shingles can replace traditional roofing, offering building owners easier solar installation options.

New Mexico’s competitive edge: 

  • New Mexico is home to three national labs and three research universities that could drive innovative research and technology transfer in advanced solar, materials science, nanotechnology, photonics and microelectronics.
  • The state’s vibrant visual arts culture could design creative solar applications that enable energy generation while enhancing local aesthetics and preserving the scenic landscape.

Why it matters to New Mexicans: As a state with little water, there aren’t many manufacturing options for New Mexico. The state ranks 49th in manufacturing as a share of its employment, and lost a quarter of its manufacturing jobs during the Great Recession. The advanced solar industry could support over 6,800 direct, indirect, and induced jobs in New Mexico annually, more than doubling the solar workforce (at the time of publication).

Wisconsin and advanced energy sensors 


WI Sensors

Potential number of jobs created in Wisconsin: 44,000 annually 

The technology: Sensors and controls hardware enable clean energy technologies to be nimble and responsive, which is increasingly important for grid flexibility and resilience. Sensors and controls can make industrial processes more efficient and optimize operations. 

Wisconsin’s competitive edge: 

  • At the time of the report’s publication in 2018, Wisconsin was home to at least 209 sensors and controls manufacturers. It was also home to anchor companies such as Johnson Controls and Rockwell Automation.
  • The state has an engaged university research community with partnerships dedicated to sensing and control technologies.

Why it matters to Wisconsinites: During the recession, Wisconsin suffered a blow to its legacy manufacturing industry, leading to many leaving the state. The report outlines how the state can gear up a skilled workforce to uplift underemployed and unemployed residents. 

West Virginia and industrial energy efficiency 


Potential number of jobs created in West Virginia: 6,100 annually

The technology: Industrial energy efficiency includes a variety of technologies and services to save energy at large energy-consuming facilities. It is key to cutting industrial emissions (responsible for a third of total emissions) while helping manufacturers reduce energy costs to remain competitive. 

West Virginia’s competitive edge: 

  • The state is home to research facilities, including the National Energy and Technology Laboratory and West Virginia University, that perform cutting-edge research in energy efficiency
  • There’s a robust chemical manufacturing industry, including a number of large anchor companies (such as a Dow Chemical facility and The Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research, and Innovation Center) engaged in manufacturing and R&D for products along the industrial energy efficiency supply chain.
  • It’s a strategic centralized location within overnight trucking distance of approximately 50 percent of the U.S. population, providing in-state manufacturers and distributors the flexibility to tap into regional energy efficiency markets.

Why it matters to West Virginia: As a state impacted by the decline in coal mining, ramping up a new growth industry would be valuable to West Virginians. 

Putting people to work

Granholm, who was governor during the Great Recession, says she is obsessed with gaining good-paying jobs in America. With AJP’s body of research, her message of ensuring the clean economy works for everyone is credible. 

“We cannot leave our people behind,” she told West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin at her Jan. 27 hearing. “In West Virginia, and in other fossil fuel states, there is an opportunity for us to specialize in the technologies that reduce carbon emissions, to make those technologies here, to put people to work here, and to look at other ways to diversify.”

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