Help Wanted for Green Jobs
Though the "win-win" perkiness of the phrase has inspired some media cynicism, "green jobs" is not just a campaign buzzword or a liberal fantasy. Environmentally sound job creation and training is happening right now, all over the country, fueled by the belief that it is possible to solve the climate crisis and put more people to work in better jobs all at the same time. In Sacramento, a costly nuclear plant has been shut down and turned over to solar energy, widely believed to be, among renewable energy industries, the most promising sector for job creation (both in number of jobs and in job quality). As the port in Duluth, Minnesota, has become busier unloading wind turbine parts, more than 100 additional workers have been hired for union jobs paying more than $30 an hour. For the past eight years, such changes have been led by state and local governments, advocated for mainly by groups like the Apollo Alliance, a coalition pushing for a greener economy, and by labor and environmental organizations.
Activists supporting green jobs have been doing so with little help from the government, because the Bush administration had no interest in solving the global warming problem or in economic policy. That meant that the thinking was small: a few hundred jobs, or even ten, and here and there one town shrinks its carbon footprint. Because there was no possibility of a national green jobs policy, no one was thinking systematically about how to remake the economy along greener lines. All that has changed. We now have a president who believes that saving the planet can create jobs. "The election changed everything," says Keith Schneider, a spokesman for the Apollo Alliance, who sees Obama's November victory as the death knell of the fossil fuel dependent, "drive through" economy. "Now that we--the progressive environmental left--have made our case and won," he says audaciously, "we're in a great race. Does the rise of the new economy beat the decline of the old?"
It's a fine question, as the debate over the economic stimulus package takes place against the backdrop of the burning wreckage of the American auto industry and a national recession. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime investment opportunity," says Bracken Hendricks of the Center for American Progress, one of the authors of its influential report Green Recovery. "We're going to spend over a trillion dollars." There's no doubt that Obama will do something to support green jobs, says Kate Gordon, co-director of the Apollo Alliance, but "people need to keep making the case that it needs to be really big."
That case keeps getting easier to make. Even before this recession, the economy was desperately in need of jobs that could support a family but didn't require an advanced degree. Rising unemployment--estimated at 13 percent in real terms--makes the case that aggressive government investment in any sort of job creation is urgently needed. And because of the recession, many of the private-sector businesses previously on the cutting edge of the green economy are floundering. Apollo Alliance activists, in conversation and on the group's website, love to highlight a green jobs success story: a factory in Memphis that used to manufacture TVs, back when TVs were made in the United States. That factory now makes solar panels, providing hundreds of unionized jobs--just the sort of story, I thought, that would intrigue and inspire Nation readers. Yet when I tried to arrange to visit the plant for this story in late 2008, the company, Sharp Electronics, preferred I stay home; because of the housing bust, business was so slow that there would be no production to see.
Wind companies struggle with the costs of capital in this tough financial environment. They're also affected by anemic state budgets; at the end of 2008 it was uncertain whether New York State would continue to fund its Renewable Portfolio Standard, which guarantees a market for renewable energy by mandating that utilities buy clean energy. (Although Governor Paterson just announced a goal of meeting 45 percent of the state's energy needs through energy efficiency and renewable energy by 2015, no one has figured out the wonky details of how to do this.) Without that policy, its enforcement mechanisms and the guaranteed demand for renewable energy credits it assures, some new ventures become too risky.
"Everyone has had to re-evaluate their projects," says Charlie Turlinski. In this climate Horizon Wind Energy, which operates the nearby Maple Ridge Wind Farm, has postponed construction on its latest North Country project. Turlinski and I drive by the site. Snow falls on the abruptly stilled forklifts. The scene is eerie, like a sudden evacuation. The project has been suspended indefinitely, and that could mean fewer jobs for graduates of Clinton County's wind technician program.
"But for the financial crisis, we might not have this opportunity," says Phil Angelides, chair of Apollo's board and former California state treasurer, referring to the historic possibility of federal investment in green jobs. "But the crisis makes it an uphill slog." Angelides points out, too, that some of the most vital projects being proposed for the stimulus do not depend on the vagaries of the business cycle: mass transit, for example, and revamping the grid for more efficient transmission. Both could help the green economy in the long run while creating jobs in the short run. The current struggles of private business, says Angelides, make federal intervention all the more urgent: it is clearer than ever that the free market alone will neither revive our economy nor reform it along greener lines.
The recession makes some engines of green development more appealing than usual: those that save money as well as the planet. Energy efficiency is enjoying a tremendous boost, hence billions in the proposed stimulus/recovery for weatherization assistance, which could create thousands of jobs while saving energy costs for businesses and consumers. In addition to the union programs like 32BJ's, innovative city schools like Bronx Community College have also been training workers in this area, which is considered the most promising source of urban green jobs at the moment. Not many spiffy new buildings like 1400 Fifth will be built during this housing bust, but anyone paying for heat should be eager to hire this emerging army of efficiency experts.