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Clean Energy Jobs Mean Business

Ron Pernick's picture

Clean energy jobs have been in the news lately, and for good reason. Solar jobs expanded by 25% and accounted for one out of every 50 new jobs created in America last year, according to the Solar Foundation’s annual census of solar employment. Based on projections from the U.S. Department of Labor, the fastest growing job in the U.S. over the next 10 years isn’t in healthcare or high tech, but in clean tech: wind turbine technician. And solar and wind power generation jobs (474,545 combined nationwide) now outpace jobs in natural gas electric power generation (362,118) and coal power generation (160,119), as reported in the second annual Department of Energy (DOE) survey of energy jobs in America.

The growth in clean-energy jobs isn’t surprising when you consider that renewable energy sources (biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, and wind) accounted for nearly 15% of domestic utility-scale electrical generation last year, up considerably from just 10.4% in 2010. An assessment by the Sun Day campaign, which reports regularly on U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) data, finds that “electrical output by utility-scale plus distributed solar grew by 44% in 2016 compared to 2015. By comparison, electrical generation by coal dropped by 8.3% and that from petroleum liquids & coke plummeted by 15.4%. Solar-generated electricity is now more than double that from petroleum sources.”

The DOE’s U.S. Energy and Employment Report provides the best available census on the traditional energy and clean energy workforces. A consortium of national business groups, including the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, Advanced Energy Economy, American Wind Energy Association, and Solar Energy Industries Association – utilizing government statistics and applying a common definition of what constitutes a clean energy job, say that the clean energy industry now accounts for more than three million U.S. jobs. That’s roughly equal to those in retail stores, and twice those in building construction.  

According to the group’s assessment of the DOE data, the clean energy sector now supports:

  • Nearly two million workers making buildings, appliances, and other products more energy efficient
  • More than 600,000 workers involved with clean power generation, including from such sources as biomass, biogas, fuel cells, geothermal, hydropower, solar, waste-to-energy, and wind
  • 100,000 workers in advanced grid technologies, including energy storage, and another 100,000 workers in biofuels
  • 200,000 jobs in advanced transportation, including hybrid, electric, and fuel cell vehicles.

A review of state-level activity is equally telling. In a growing number of states, clean energy jobs now outpace those of traditional energy (in a range of categories). A Clean Edge review of the state-level charts finds that:

  • Arizona now has more people working in solar power generation (9,774) than natural gas and coal electric power generation combined (9,709)
  • A growing number of states now have more jobs in renewable electricity generation (solar, wind, and hydro combined) than in conventional electricity generation (natural gas, coal, and oil combined). These include a host of red states (based on 2016 presidential election results), including Iowa, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Oklahoma
  • In Hawaii, in the transmission, distribution and storage jobs category, the number of microgrid-related jobs (2,317) outpaces that of the traditional transmission and distribution workforce (1,341) by more than 70%
  • In California, solar electricity generation jobs (152,947) are nearly 10 times those in natural gas electricity generation employment (16,960)

 Any reliable assessment of clean energy industry growth, and the jobs created by it, isn’t possible without access to the rich datasets from the EIA, DOE, Department of Labor, and other federal institutions. The release of the DOE’s second annual reporting on energy jobs is key to open and transparent reporting and the ability to track and analyze energy-related job trends. We hope to see such critical accounting continue. 

But the significant upside of the clean-energy revolution, and its concomitant jobs, is being overlooked, and even maligned, by the Trump Administration. Trump’s America Energy First Energy Plan, for example, lacks one single mention of renewables. Nothing on solar, wind, efficiency, energy storage or EV integration. Instead, it reads like a fossil fuel baron’s wish list from an earlier era.

This short-sighted and one-sided approach overlooks the positive social, economic, and, dare I say, environmental benefits of clean energy. As prices for solar, wind, and energy storage continue to decline, and cities, states, and corporations demand ever higher amounts of low- and zero-carbon electrons (in some cases up to 100%), Trump puts the entire country in jeopardy by disregarding the job-creating prowess of these rapidly expanding technologies. With China, India, Germany, Denmark, and other countries leading the clean-energy charge at the national level, such actions put America’s global energy and economic leadership at serious risk.

Ron Pernick is founder and managing director of research and advisory firm Clean Edge and the coauthor of two books on clean-tech business trends and innovation, Clean Tech Nation (HarperCollins, 2012) and The Clean Tech Revolution (HarperCollins, 2007).