Opinion: Note to President Trump — Clean Energy Is Job Explosion Waiting to Happen

R. William Potter | January 24, 2017 | Opinion
Investments in renewable energy can be a quick start to employment growth and the best weapon in the battle against global climate change (even if you don’t believe in it)

Credit: Amanda Brown
R. William Potter
In all the debate over the allegedly high cost versus benefits of promoting increased solar energy development, much of it reported in NJ Spotlight, one factor that so far has received scant attention among policymakers is the number of jobs that could be created by this rapidly growing industry.

According to recent reports surveying employment across all energy industries, renewable energy — notably solar and wind — emerges as a veritable jobs machine, outpacing growth in traditional fossil-fuel sources of electric power (oil, natural gas, and coal).

So take note President Trump.

Combating global climate change that threatens life as we know it on this planet will not burden the U.S. economy. Far from it. Promoting clean energy will fuel economic gains at a quickening pace, providing millions of good-paying jobs along the way. The challenge for policymakers is to provide a fair share of these new jobs to those laid off in the mining and industrial sectors.

In early January, the Energy Information Administration (EIA), a semi-autonomous unit of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), issued its annual report on energy jobs. The report supplies still more evidence of the “positive externality” benefits of the nation’s — indeed, the world’s — clean-energy revolution.

Amid all the graphs, footnotes, and lengthy caveats in the EIA report, some hard data stands out:

In calendar year 2016 solar cells supported 373,807 jobs, an increase of 25 percent over 2015, in the manufacture, installation, and maintenance of 16 gigawatts of electric power — equivalent in capacity to adding 16 commercial-sized nuclear power plants.

In 2016 another leading source of renewables, wind, employed 101,738 workers compared with 77,088 the year before, an increase of 25 percent. Adding solar and wind together yields a total of 475,545 workers in carbon-free sources of electricity.

If we include hydroelectric power which, according to the EIA report, employed 65,554 to the mix of renewables, we wind up with a total of 541,099 zero-carbon jobs producing electricity.

Adding in the jobs involved in boosting energy efficiency, from manufacturing high-efficiency appliances and LED light bulbs to installing insulation in roofs, the EIA reports an estimated 2.2 million jobs were dedicated at least partially to conserving energy, the lowest of the low-hanging fruit among carbon reduction initiatives.

Globally, renewable energy employment is jumping off the charts. In its 2015 survey, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) — described as “an intergovernmental organization that supports countries in their transition to a sustainable energy future” — reported that renewable energy jobs reached an estimated 7.7 million workers, with China, the United States, and (surprisingly) Brazil as the top three and with solar cells as the largest employer, “accounting for nearly 2.5 million jobs.”

As for little New Jersey, the Garden State has some big numbers on solar: A recent Board of Public Utilities press release boasted that solar cells now exceed 2 gigawatts of capacity at more than 60,000 sites around the state — equivalent in capacity to two Hope Creek nuclear plants (as reported in NJ Spotlight).

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), some 480 companies were active in New Jersey in 2015, employing 7,071 people, a two-year-old number that doubtlessly understates the current number of solar jobs.

Numbers like this dwarf fossil-fuel jobs in electric generation, which the same EIA report puts at 86,033 workers in 2016. While still significant, this level of employment is one-sixth of the total working in renewable producers of electricity.

To be sure, numbers showing renewables outpacing fossil fuel sources in the electric power sector do not take into account the many thousands of hard-hat workers in “extraction industries” such as coal mining and oil drilling.

The EIA found that petroleum drilling provided 502,678 jobs; natural gas mining, 309,993 jobs; and at the bottom — and sinking steadily — only 74,084 coal-mining-related jobs. Grand total: 8l8,755 in the fossil-fuel mining industries.

So what do all these numbers add up to? For starters, it’s always useful to bear in mind the cautionary adage that “there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Not that these surveys are unreliable or suspect as “alternative facts,” but they need to be taken with a grain of salt, since definitions of key terms and data collection methods may vary between reporting entities, and even from one year to the next.

But what is clear is that if we promote continued rapid growth in renewable energy — as we must in order to restrain if not prevent the worst ravages of climate change — green jobs will provide employment opportunities for millions of people nationally and internationally, and thousands of those will be in New Jersey.

To be sure, we must spread some of this employment wealth to those workers facing a bleak future with the closing of coal mines in Kentucky and Pennsylvania, and the idling of drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and other areas left behind by this revolution in clean energy.