Seeding Renewables to Grow Jobs

Trimming our reliance on fossil fuels is widely regarded as a strategy to stem alarming changes in the environment. It could also cut down the size of the unemployment line, according to research from the University of California at Berkeley. A new report states that investing in renewable energy sources including wind, solar, and biomass yields a greater return in job creation than spending on coal, gas, and petroleum exploration.

The study, which was released on April 13, analyzed 13 independent renewable energy reports that were produced between 1999 and 2004. The report found that "Across a broad range of scenarios, the renewable energy sector generates more jobs per average megawatt of power installed, and per unit of energy produced, than the fossil fuel-based energy sector."

The report determined that if the U.S. portfolio of energy sources remains constant through 2020, 86,369 new jobs would be created. However, if 20 percent of energy were to come from renewable sources, then between 188,018 and 240,850 new jobs could be created, depending on the mix of wind, solar and biomass energy used.

According to report co-author, Daniel M. Kammen, who is a professor in the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley, investing in renewable energy could result in between "three to ten times the number of jobs" created by spending on fossil fuel subsidies.

Those new jobs would hire workers in high-skill areas such as engineering and design, as well as areas where there is currently higher unemployment, such as construction and agriculture, according to the report. Investment in renewable energy "does seem to be good news across the board," Kammen said. The report factors in some losses in fossil fuel industries, so the numbers indicated are net job increases, according to Kammen.

Kammen said that investments need to be made in renewable energy that will stimulate domestic job growth, as opposed to fossil fuel spending which frequently goes outside the country. "The U.S. currently spends $115 billion a year in foreign oil," Kammen said. "We need a sustained program for this country, and not just create jobs in Saudi Arabia."

The report said renewable energy investment could come in many forms, including research and development, tax incentives, and increasing market demand by specifying a percentage of the nation's energy portfolio coming from renewable sources.

Kammen presented the report at an energy conference in Seattle sponsored by the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of labor, environmental, business and faith groups that support energy independence. The Apollo Alliance favors a $300 million federal investment in renewable energy over the next 10 years, which the group says would create 3.3 million new jobs. More than a dozen environmental groups and 17 major labor unions have endorsed the Apollo Alliance.

Bracken Hendricks, the executive director of the Apollo Alliance, said that the Berkeley study overemphasized job displacement in the fossil fuels sector. "It's a mistake to frame this as a war between fossil fuels and renewables." Hendricks said "the real and pressing danger is that we are forfeiting our leadership in major growth sectors."

Investing in renewables would increases demand for advanced manufacturing goods such as solar panels and wind turbines, which would give the U.S. the expertise and economies of scale to become an importer rather than an exporter, Hendricks said. "Wind turbines require a lot of steel, and we're not capturing this industry," said Hendricks, noting that U.S. wind farms rely on products from Denmark and Spain.

Hendricks said government needs to invest in basic research and development that is viewed by the private sector as higher risk than fossil fuels. "Without it we're sacrificing our future," he said.

Investing in renewable energy has been increasingly prominent during this election season, as candidates from both parties are promoting its benefits to job creation, the environment, and energy independence. The Western Governors' Association held a North American Energy Summit in Albuquerque, NM, this month, where governors and legislators from both major parties promised to expand their reliance on renewable energy. The governors of California, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico are all promising to reduce fossil fuel consumption.

However, federal funding initiatives to expand fossil fuel and renewable energy development are on hold as Congress has been unable to pass a massive energy bill that has been languishing for nearly two years.

That bill doesn't deserve to be passed, according to Earth Policy Institute research associate Janet Larsen. "The energy bill is weighted much more towards subsidies for oil and coal -- industries we should not be subsidizing at all," Larsen said. "We need to move ahead instead of putting investment into energy technologies from the last century."

While the bill would reinstitute a production tax credit for wind farms and include some biomass incentives, it was widely derided as being laden with pork that subsidizes every energy special interest.

Peter Van Doren, an analyst for Washington-based libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, said that all of the energy bill's subsidies would be ineffective at creating jobs. "It is only rare when political intervention can create jobs... in most cases it is a net jobs loser," Van Doren said. According to Van Doren, investing in renewable energies would only move jobs from one sector to another, not create them.

Van Doren questioned the validity of the Berkeley report, stating "During appropriations season, its easy to get someone to come up with an estimate of how (government) investment can be a net creator of jobs."

Berkeley's Kammen argues that transitioning from fossil fuels requires government investment. "To free us from oil dependence, it requires priming of the pump," he said. "Most analysts believe that profits from renewables will pay back the investments in no time."

John Gartner writes about environmental technology and alternative energy from his home in Philadelphia.

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