For policymakers who are interested in job creation, investing in renewable energy is considerably more effective than investing in fossil fuels, writes Allan Hoffman, author of the blog Thoughts of a Lapsed Physicist and formerly with the U.S. Department of Energy. Solar and wind are powerful engines of job creation and economic growth.
Job creation is always a safe issue for politicians to address and it played a crucial role in our recent presidential election. Donald Trump achieved his unexpected upset victory over Hillary Clinton by appealing to disaffected workers in normally Democrat-leaning states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. A primary focus of the Trump campaign was jobs in the manufacturing and coal-mining industries, where many workers had been laid off in recent years. Some people have blamed these job losses on Obama Administration policies, including support for solar and wind energy. What are the facts?
The fact that renewable energy, mostly in the form of solar and wind energy, is entering the energy mainstream, both in the U.S. and in other countries, is a reality. This is often attributed to their reduced costs and role in reducing carbon emissions. What is often overlooked or given minimal attention is that investment in the manufacture and deployment of these clean energy technologies creates many ‘green jobs’. What data supports this statement?
Already the largest source of renewable energy jobs in the U.S., solar energy will be a major factor in shaping our future energy system and creating new jobs
Data for the U.S. was available from the Green Jobs Initiative of the Bureau of Labor Statistics in annual reports for fiscal years 2009, 2010, and 2011. Unfortunately, budget sequestration brought an end to this program in 2013. Today other organizations are filling the gap, e.g. The Solar Foundation’s annual ‘National Solar Jobs Census’, monthly reports from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), and occasional reports from other non-governmental organizations.
On a global basis the International Energy Agency (IEA) has become a source of jobs information, as has the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) through its Renewable Energy and Jobs Annual Reviews. Two highlights of IRENA’s 2016 Review were that (a) global direct and indirect employment in the renewable energy industry had reached 8.1 million in 2015, a 5% increase over 2014, and (b) solar photovoltaics (PV) was the largest renewable energy employer at 2.8 million jobs, an 11% increase over 2014.
Solar Foundation data indicated that in 2016 the U.S. solar industry (8,600 companies) employed 260,00 workers. This was an increase of more than 20% for the fourth straight year and more than 178% since 2010. This outpaced the overall 2016 national jobs growth rate of 1.5%. California led U.S. states in solar employment with 100,050 jobs.
How do these numbers compare with numbers in the fossil fuel industries? In 2015 workers employed directly in oil and natural gas extraction numbered about 187,000, a decrease of 14,000 from 2014. Indirect related jobs number about 2 million, of which about 40% are at gas stations. Another fossil fuel industry that received considerable attention during the 2016 election was coal mining. It accounted for 68,000 jobs in 2015, continuing its decrease of recent years.
A different story
Looking ahead, what can we expect? As oil and natural gas prices increase from their recent lows, and fracking is therefore reinvigorated, the number of related extraction jobs should stay approximately level. This should continue as long as no cost penalty is imposed on carbon emissions, and Trump Administration support for maintaining and expanding fossil fuel extraction is strong.
Coal is a different story. Long the basis of more than half of U.S. electricity generation, coal’s share of that market is now down to about a third and heading lower. When combusted it is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, and automation of the coal digging process and competition from fracked and low cost natural gas has signaled the beginning of the end of the coal era and related jobs in the U.S. In addition, utilities are not adding new coal powered systems because their capital and operating costs are higher than for new natural gas, wind and solar power plants (data provided by EIA).
Solar and wind are no longer niche businesses
What are the prospects for renewable energy and related jobs in the U.S. in the future? As reported by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), at the start of 2016 jobs in the U.S. wind industry totaled 88,000, an increase of 20% over 2014. This was made possible by the installation of nearly 9,000 megawatts of new electrical generating capacity across 20 states, an increase of 77% over 2014. Wind accounted for 41% of all newly installed U.S. electrical capacity in 2015, ahead of solar (28.5%) and natural gas (28.1%). This growth will continue both onshore, where essentially all U.S. wind turbines have been installed to date, and offshore as this large resource begins to be tapped.
Two recent reports have documented the equally impressive prospects for solar energy’s growth. IRENA’s ‘Letting In the Light: How Solar Photovoltaics Will Revolutionize the Electricity System’ states that “The age of solar energy has arrived. It came faster than anyone predicted and is ushering in a shift in energy ownership.”
Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported in a June 2016 report that “..solar and wind technologies will be the cheapest way to produce electricity in most parts of the world in the 2030s..” Already the largest source of renewable energy jobs in the U.S., solar energy will be a major factor in shaping our future energy system and creating new jobs. A recently published book Sun Towards High Noon: Solar Power Transforming Our Energy Future (Pan Stanford Publishing; Peter Varadi editor and contributor) discusses the jobs issue in detail along with other issues, including solar financing, markets, and quality control.
We must not be left behind as this energy transition unfolds in the next several decades
What conclusions can be drawn? If a primary national goal is to create jobs in the energy sector, investing in renewable energy is considerably more effective than investing in fossil fuels. Solar and wind are no longer niche businesses, their widespread use addresses global warming and climate change, and their manufacture and deployment are powerful engines of economic growth and job creation.
The U.S. Congress must recognize this and put policies in place that accelerate their growth. Other countries recognize this potential and are moving rapidly onto this path, some even faster than the U.S. We must not be left behind as this energy transition unfolds in the next several decades, but we must also not forget the people who will be displaced from their jobs in traditional energy industries.
Allan Hoffman is author of the blog Thoughts of a Lapsed Physicist. He is a former Senior Analyst in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and physicist by training.
Hoffman is a contributor to a new comprehensive handbook, Sun Towards High Noon, edited by solar pioneer Peter F. Varadi, which details the meteoric expansion of the solar (PV) industry and describes how solar power will change our energy future.