Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is excited. And when Sanders – longtime maverick populist – is in that frame of mind, you know something right and smart is in the works.

In this case it’s the Energy Savings Act of 2007, which the Senate is now debating. Sanders is so keen on this legislation because of the opportunity not only to address global warming and energy needs, but also to create millions of new jobs and make sure our workforce has the skills needed to fill them.

Yesterday afternoon, the Senate adopted the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Workforce Development Amendment sponsored by Sanders and recent cosponsor, Senator Hillary Clinton. The amendment allots $100 million to train workers in “green collar jobs” – jobs that involve the design, manufacture, installation, operation, and maintenance of clean, efficient energy technologies.

“Congress obviously needs to move aggressively to address the crisis of global warming,” Sanders told me, “and there are signs that we are going to succeed in doing that. The good news is that as we move forward with renewable energy and energy efficiency industries – although there will be some job dislocation – we can create millions of new jobs.”

The amendment calls for up to $40 million in grants awarded on a competitive basis for a national training partnerships program, $40 million towards state training partnership programs, and additional funding for “national and state industry-wide research, labor market information, and labor exchange programs” that would “help develop standards and curricula needed for effective training….”

These training programs – according to government, industry, labor and community activists – are desperately needed. As Sanders put it, “The problem is right now if a person wants to retrofit their home to make it more energy efficient – and there are studies that indicate an average homeowner can reduce energy costs by 40% by doing this – you would have a hard time finding trained workers to do that. If you wanted to install solar panels, you would have a hard time finding trained workers to do that. The same for a wind turbine, etc.”

In a letter supporting the “Sanders-Clinton amendment,” the National Association of Energy Service Companies, American Solar Energy Society, American Wind Energy Association, Renewable Fuels Association, and Solar Energy Industries Association – representing hundreds of companies in domestic biomass, wind, solar energy, geothermal power, fuel cells and more – wrote, “Across the country, our companies experience workforce shortages as one of the key barriers to growth.” The letter cited a 2006 study by the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) identifying “the shortage of training and skills as a leading non-technical barrier to renewable energy and energy efficiency growth.”

These groups suggest that by 2025 alternative, clean energy technologies could provide electric power equal to half of the amount our nation currently uses. And by 2030, these industries could replace 30 to 40% of the amount of petroleum currently imported. In the process, “our industries could make a significant contribution to curbing global warming, enhancing our nation’s energy security, and creating up to 5 million new jobs by 2025.” But all of this assumes that “we… find enough qualified, trained people… By establishing a pilot program specifically geared toward the renewable energy and efficiency industries, the Sanders-Clinton Amendment would enable us to build the workforce our industries need to achieve their maximum potential.”

While progress has been made in recent years in building coalitions to promote a clean energy economy – and no organization has done more on this front than the Apollo Alliance – there has still been too much foot-dragging by guardians of Old Energy such as Representative John Dingell. So it’s important that environmentalists have supported this amendment as “signaling that America is, at last ready to replace the old debate of ‘jobs vs. the environment’ by investing in ‘jobs for the environment.'” (The AFL-CIO is also a strong supporter of the bill and the Apollo Alliance credits it “as the primary lead on the Sanders-Clinton workforce bill.”) Clean Water Action, Earthjustice, Public Citizen, Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists and others wrote that “investments in [the] training of building maintenance workers, superintendents, and engineers could improve the operations of sophisticated heating and cooling systems by as much as 10 percent, saving millions in energy costs each year in large public, industrial, or commercial buildings.”

Apollo Alliance President Jeremy Ringo points out that the American Public Power Association estimates “half of current utility workers will retire within the next decade… [and] our nation is not training enough new workers to fill their places… Using the average costs of attending a community college, we estimate that [the Sanders-Clinton] funding would be sufficient to train between 20,000 and 30,000 workers per year. These numbers represent just a small fraction of the 3 million workers that would be needed… if the country launched an ambitious ten-year Apollo-like effort to build a new energy future. However, we believe it is prudent to begin with a pilot program on the scale proposed by Sen. Sanders to ensure we fully understand the kinds of training needed and future workforce trends before investing in a larger effort.”

This amendment also targets important populations for training such as veterans, workers displaced by a new energy economy and globalization, individuals seeking a pathway out of poverty, formerly incarcerated, non-violent offenders, and workers in the energy field needing to update their skills.

Van Jones, Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, wrote of the Sanders amendment – and a similar effort in the House by Representatives Hilda Solis, John Tierney and others – that Congress is finally “connect[ing] the dots on ways to solve two of the nation’s biggest problems: failing American job security and global climate security…. [these] proposals are not only good for low-income workers. [They] will greatly aid green industries and businesses themselves.”

“As we move forward to reduce greenhouse gasses and build a clean energy economy,” Sanders said, “we need to prepare a well-trained workforce to help us do that. This amendment is one way to help achieve that.”

The larger Energy Bill that emerges may well not live up to the hope, hype, and promise signaled by Democratic leadership, instead drowning in too many lobbyists’ demands. But the Sanders-Clinton amendment is truly progressive, and in promoting green collar job training it could have a real and lasting impact. It’s worth contacting your Representative today and urging support for a similar effort in the House Energy Bill today.