Help Wanted for Green Jobs

Help Wanted for Green Jobs

It’s inspiring to have a president who talks the talk on green-collar jobs. But we need megawatts, not just megawords.



“I said, ‘I see windmills,’ and everyone kind of gave me a strange look.” Vicky Sloan, a humanities professor at Clinton Community College, which serves a rural region in upstate New York, is describing a “visualization” session with a touchy-feely outside consultant, forced on the faculty several years ago by the administration. The consultant had asked the professors to close their eyes and picture their institution’s future. “It was so Dilbert,” interjects Sloan’s close friend June Foley, a professor who teaches psychology at the college. “It was!” agrees Sloan, who lives off the grid, in a log cabin, with her own power generator. “But when I closed my eyes, that’s what I saw.”

Less than an hour north of campus, along the Canadian border, real wind turbines perform a slow ballet dance over the snow-covered farmland. The windmills look at once gleamingly futuristic and as if they’ve always belonged there. The landscape is rapidly darkening on this overcast mid-afternoon in December–another snowstorm is expected–but even the most distant turbines can be seen easily, like guiding beacons. Wind farms have become a symbol of clean energy–feel-good iconography used by every liberal entity from The Rachel Maddow Show to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. But here in the Plattsburgh region, they also represent jobs.

Clinton County–part of what is called the North Country–has endured much upheaval in recent years. Plattsburgh Air Force Base–the oldest military post in the nation–closed in 1995 and has been turned into an industrial park, occupied by a mix of biotech, pharmaceutical, engineering and other companies. The area’s many small farmers struggle, like small farmers everywhere. Manufacturing jobs have been gradually ebbing. But the North Country is one of the windiest spots in the nation and thus has become a thriving Gold Coast for the wind industry, with five wind farms producing a total of 690 megawatts of clean energy.

Like many two-year college teachers–who don’t enjoy the salary or prestige that many of their counterparts at four-year colleges do–the faculty at Clinton Community College have long taken seriously their civic duty to prepare students for the best jobs the local economy can offer. While faculty members like Sloan envisioned a role for the college in the region’s wind industry, it was Janice Padula, an environmental science professor and hard-working Democratic Party activist, who made it happen. Working with regional economic development officials, the wind industry and relevant technical experts at the college, she established a wind technician training program to prepare students for the wind industry’s most permanent jobs: troubleshooting and maintaining the turbines. The program’s first students began in January, as Barack Obama took office. The timing couldn’t be better: several of the students have arrived fresh from recession trauma, having just been laid off from FedEx or Wyeth Pharmaceuticals.

Windmills are only modest engines of job creation. A 200-megawatt wind farm–a large one–creates about 300 jobs over the course of its construction. Some of these are union jobs, but all are temporary. A wind farm of the same size requires about twenty technicians to operate and to fix the turbines if anything goes wrong. Such jobs, says Charlie Turlinski, a project manager for Horizon Wind Energy, require a good amount of skill. “The technician job can work well for the farmer’s son who knows how to take a tractor apart and put it back together,” he explains, but it also requires extensive computer and GPS training. Plus, as Sloan points out, “They have to like climbing really tall towers!” (True, and this wouldn’t be fun for everyone: the windmills are 265 feet to the “navel,” or axis.) Technicians–nonunion, though there is no reason they have to be–will earn an average salary of $50,000 a year over the lifetime of the wind farm, on average being paid $35 per hour: hardly as good as making cars for GM, but much better than working at Wal-Mart.

Wind energy from the North Country reaches New York City on the state’s overstressed grid. One of the buildings that buys it is 1400 Fifth Avenue, the city’s first green condominium building–still the only one to include affordable housing units (before the recession, green was as trendy in Manhattan luxury buildings as it was on the runway). Built in 2004, 1400 Fifth boasts the largest geothermal residential heating and cooling system in the United States; despite its location in densely populated East Harlem, it is powered by well water.

In this part of New York City, there are almost certainly more Baptist churches than “green jobs,” but 1400 Fifth’s resident manager, Hector Norat, has one of the few. Norat is obviously proud of the complex skills and exploratory spirit required to maintain the building: “No one understands the geothermal system, not even the engineers who made it up,” he observes, “because it is so new!” Norat’s union, SEIU Local 32BJ, offers an energy-efficiency training program for building supers, and Norat has taken many of the classes. He’s proud not only of the building’s small carbon footprint but that it is so much healthier for the residents. He leads me into the hallway and insists that I observe the building’s distinct air quality: “I want you to breathe this clean, light air.” Like organic family farmers who are relieved that their kids can play outside without eating pesticides, Norat, who lives in the building, relishes raising his two young children in this environment–especially in a neighborhood where the number of child asthma hospitalizations is ten times the national rate.

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.

The green jobs advocates are just finding their way around a changing Washington. Many are pleased with the proposed appointment of Hilda Solis as the new labor secretary, who as a California Congresswoman was a vocal advocate for green jobs and environmental justice. In mid-January, the Apollo Alliance was meeting with legislators on the Hill, where Green For All founder Van Jones was testifying to urge Congress to make green jobs central in the stimulus/recovery package. The Blue Green Alliance, which is setting up its DC office, will have an intense “advocacy day” in early February.

The question is, When they don’t get what they want, who will take to the streets and fight? It’s in everyone’s interest to create decent jobs while fighting global warming, yet the constituency for a green jobs agenda is not always clear. Until recently, the most organized constituencies on energy issues were the few industries–like petroleum and auto companies–that stand to lose from a cleaner economy. Public enthusiasm for green jobs has evolved: Americans are more aware than ever about global warming, as well as what politicians like to call “energy independence” or “energy security.” And growing numbers of Americans could use a job. Still, it is not clear how broadly or easily mobilized these desires are, and who has the capacity to organize people to make a serious green jobs policy happen, if and when Obama decides against doing anything “really big.”

The Blue Green Alliance, founded by the Steelworkers and the Sierra Club, has organized town-hall meetings in blue-collar strongholds like Canton, Ohio, and Granite City, Illinois, where steelworkers have been bringing the green jobs case to others in the community. Dave Foster, formerly of the Steelworkers and now executive director of the Blue Green Alliance, describes these campaigns as “neighbor-to-neighbor, person-to-person–making the case that the person who lost their job in a plant in Akron could go back to work tomorrow if we passed a [federal] Renewable Energy Standard.” Now that SEIU, the Laborers and the Communications Workers of America have joined the Blue Green Alliance, the coalition represents more than 6 million people. That’s a lot of Americans, of course, but with SEIU, the largest of those organizations, in extreme disarray, and the rest of the labor movement occupied with trying to pass the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), the potential could go untapped.

Green jobs represent a great opportunity for the labor movement; if the new jobs are union jobs, labor could gain numbers and clout. This would be a boost to the economy, too, putting money in the pockets of working-class people. Hector Norat’s work is demanding, highly skilled and cutting edge, but that’s not why he makes such good money (he won’t say how much, but his local says superintendents at his level make between $50,000 and $100,000). The reason is old school: his union card. Yet questions of union membership, and even organizing rights, haven’t been central to the policy debate over green jobs.

Largely offstage in these discussions about labor advocacy on green jobs is one obvious actor: the United Auto Workers. It’s hard to imagine an industry more in need of a green makeover; yet the UAW, following the lead of the automakers, is doing little to push for the kind of federal action that might reinvent the industry along greener lines–and save more of its members’ jobs. Having been through steel’s bankruptcy wave in 1998, Foster says, he understands what the UAW is going through. “You almost can’t think strategically while something like that is going on,” he says. “But the world does have a crying need for green transportation.”

“It’s hard to develop constituency for something that doesn’t exist yet,” says the Center for American Progress’s Hendricks. This lack of constituency is particularly dire for some of the best green jobs ideas: serious investment in high-speed interstate rail, for example, could provide good jobs, revive small cities whose economies have been devastated by the decline in air travel, and lower carbon emissions by providing an alternative to air and car travel. But no member of Congress is going to lose her job or even see protesters outside her office because she didn’t make sure high-speed rail was in the stimulus package.

Yet this, too, becomes another argument for huge investment in green jobs, whether through regulation, investment, tax breaks or training programs: this “new economy” gathers more supporters the more real it becomes. That’s because as the green economy grows, more people benefit. In Puerto Rico, where he grew up, and where much of his family still lives, Norat owns ninety acres of windy land, which he is hoping to lease to a wind farm, to provide power for the island and, of course, profits for himself. (In the North Country and other rural areas, such revenues are a major boost to small landowners, mostly farmers, who enjoy substantial rents for hosting wind turbines on their property.) Paradoxically, environmental groups have, so far, kept windmills out of Puerto Rico. “They were worried about the birds flying into the turbines,” Norat sighs, rolling his eyes. “Aren’t the birds smarter than that? This is something that is so good for everybody!”

“I don’t consider myself a fanatic of green energy,” Norat says, his enthusiasm evident in his cautious smile, “because I don’t believe in being a fanatic of anything.” But he’s going to Maine for a family wedding this summer, and he may drive along the Canadian border to see the Clinton County wind farms. “I am crazy about this,” he admits, “and I want to get a little more crazy.”

The North Country has wind to spare, but New York’s rickety grid is at capacity. No new wind farms can be built in Clinton County until Obama delivers on this piece of the “Green New Deal.” While the prospects for improving the grid are decent–judging from the most recent stimulus plans–it’s one of many examples of how the slowly emerging green economy is in a state of suspension. As stimulus proposals emerge from the president and the House, it’s clear that in many ways they already fall far short of what many green jobs advocates have championed. Job-creating, money-saving initiatives–like weatherization assistance for low-income Americans and grid upgrades–will be funded, but these will be, at best, tentative baby steps. Too much money is squandered on tax cuts, and of the dispiriting 14 percent allocated for infrastructure, conventional, old-economy projects like highways have fared much better than mass transit and other green priorities. When Van Jones testified before Congress in January on green jobs, he sympathized with members’ efforts: “[You’re] sweating over the details of how we can actually beat the recession and global warming at the same time…. And you’re going to get a grade from our great-grandchildren. Yes or no. Pass or fail.” There’s a danger that in the rush to do just about anything to get the economy moving, we’ll fumble a rare chance to revolutionize that economy.

As inspiring as it is to have a president who talks the talk on green-collar jobs, it will take an organized movement to ensure that we get, in a phrase popular among renewable-energy advocates, “megawatts, not just megawords.” That movement must have the imagination to fight for our great-grandchildren, and for much that doesn’t exist yet, with the “selflessness” and creativity that Obama, in his inaugural speech, urged upon the nation. “The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act–not only to create new jobs but to lay a new foundation for growth,” President Obama said. “We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.” Let’s hope we take his words to heart–and far beyond his modest proposals.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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