Are Sustainable Energy Jobs Sustainable?
Are Sustainable Energy Jobs Sustainable?

A shift away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy is moving forward, and many jobs hang in the balance. With unemployment a persistent concern for Americans, the question arises of whether renewables can pick up the slack from declining carbon-based fuels.

The energy industry currently employs more than 3.5 million Americans, including those who work in traditional energy sectors, such as oil or coal, and those working with renewables.

When we think of energy workers, coal miners or solar panel installers may come to mind. But this shift will also affect construction workers, administrative staff, gas station workers (who number about 900,000), and more. 

And the general effect this shift will have on the American economy—through changes in energy prices, for example—could impact employment in almost all industries.

But the statistics for current energy employment trends have many caveats, and projections for the future are even more cloudy.

Policy makers have strongly influenced growth or decline in the different sectors. Solar and wind have been subsidized, while new regulations are creating hard times for the coal industry. With nuclear, natural gas, and other energy forms, how policy will develop is less clear.

Other factors that will affect employment during this shift include the overall economic impacts of the move to renewables, how labor intensive each type of energy is to produce, and improvements in technology. These and other variables make difficult any definite forecast for jobs.

Current Energy Employment Trends

While the current statistics show a rise in renewable energy employment and a fall in fossil fuel employment, it’s not a simple exchange.

There are currently about 534,000 jobs in renewables, according to the first annual energy employment report released this year by the U.S. Department of Energy. On the other hand, there are about 1 million jobs in fossil fuels and 43,000 in nuclear. 

Among renewables, solar is in the lead for employment growth. The Solar Foundation predicted a growth rate of 14.7 percent for 2016. While this is impressive (that’s 12 times greater than the growth of the overall economy), it is a considerable drop from the 20 percent growth in 2015. Some have said this is the start of a downward trend. 

But solar subsidies renewed by Congress after that prediction was made may boost the job count.

Employment in oil and gas extraction shrank by 18 percent in 2015, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) analyzed by the Brookings Institute. But some jobs in this industry are still expected to thrive in coming years. Positions for petroleum engineers—who design equipment to extract oil and gas—are still expected to increase by 10 percent over the next decade, according to BLS. 

Case Study: Coal vs. Solar

Let’s zoom in and take a look at the issue of coal employment versus solar employment, as one part of the larger, more complex issue of energy industry jobs overall.

“We hear this large critical backlash against renewable energy because it will destroy all these coal jobs,” said Joshua Pearce, Ph.D., an associate professor at Michigan Technological University. Pearce grew up in Western Pennsylvania where the decline of the coal industry is a personal matter. “These are real people with real lives, how can we keep them employed?” he said. 

Pearce coauthored a study looking at how coal workers could transition to the solar industry. He described the results as “mostly optimistic.” Some skills are directly transferable, while some require retraining. But overall, he said, the majority of coal workers could find jobs in the growing solar industry. 

There are currently about 150,000 jobs in coal and about 300,000 in solar. Solar is more labor-intensive because of all the installation and customer support jobs, Pearce explained, while much of the coal industry is automated. 

Solar More Labor-Intensive, Room for Growth

Alex Winn, program director at the Solar Foundation, said via email: “Continued solar expansion will likely produce a net increase in employment despite potential fossil fuel employment losses, given that solar is more labor intensive per unit of energy produced.”

The majority of solar jobs are in installation. This begs the question, will installations peak and eventually plateau or decline once all the appropriate sites already have panels installed?

Winn put into perspective the potential for sustainable growth: “There are approximately 130 million residential and commercial buildings in the U.S. It’s possible that only half of these will ever have the right exposure, shading, and other conditions for solar.

“Even at 65 million properties, solar installers could accelerate their pace to 3 million installations per year [three times the current total installed] and still be busy for two decades. Beyond that, population growth, new construction, and maintenance/replacement of millions of systems could support ongoing labor demand.”

Other Kinds of Energy

Now, we’ll zoom back out to look at the broader energy industry, the employment prospects for other renewables, and traditional energy sources.

There are currently about 88,000 jobs in wind power in the United States, a 20 percent rise since 2014, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). And that could grow to 600,000 by 2050, according to the DOE. That would be a substantial part of the current 1 million jobs in fossil fuels that need in theory to be replaced, if fossil fuels are to be eradicated. 

Wind is limited geographically, noted Pearce, as it requires particularly windy locations. But Larry Sherwood, president and CEO of Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC), said it conveniently works out that in places where solar power is weaker, wind power is stronger, and vice versa. 

Sherwood also noted that wind power brings manufacturing jobs to the United States, since the large turbines are costly to ship. Conversely, most solar panels are made in China.

Biomass and other renewables currently provide about 122,000 jobs and hydroelectricity provides 36,000, according to the DOE. Despite an increase in production of ethanol and other biofuels in the United States, employment in this industry dropped 2 percent due to mechanization, according to IRENA. 

Geothermal only provided about 5,200 jobs in 2010, according to the Geothermal Energy Association, but that could grow to 100,000 in the next 30 years. 

As for jobs related to other traditional energy industries, Pearce said many of them could go the way of coal.

“Nuclear power is not economic, it can’t cover its own insurance costs,” Pearce said. The advanced material scientists in the nuclear industry will have other places to find work, he said, perhaps in the medical use of nuclear materials. For example, some pacemakers are powered by nuclear material batteries. 

Yet for nuclear, as with any energy industry, political policy could make all the difference. New York recently determined that nuclear is considered important to meeting its clean energy goals, since nuclear energy production does not emit carbon. Solar and wind are not enough currently to power the grid. The state’s subsidies are sure to save nuclear jobs, as some of the plants were on the verge of closing. 

Natural gas has boomed, but anti-fracking movements may affect jobs in that industry. “All of this is driven by policy,” Pearce said. “If fracking is suddenly legislated against … then that industry will also be expected to decline and it would be like the coal industry.”

Energy storage and conservation could also open many jobs. A major challenge to renewables is that they can be unreliable; if the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining, other kinds of energy are needed to feed the grid.

Battery storage is currently not affordable on a large scale, but Pearce said the price of batteries dropped by half within just a few months while he was working on a related study. Promising new technologies are being developed in this regard, he said, and “that could fundamentally change the grid.”

The prospects for many of his students as they enter the workforce, he said, will be in developing a grid that can integrate the new technologies and manage energy efficiently.

Energy efficiency employment (making products or providing services that reduce energy consumption) is a big slice of the pie. In New York, 82 percent of the clean energy jobs are in energy efficiency. 

Gloomier Predictions

While many organizations and government agencies tout the growth of employment through renewables, not everyone is so optimistic.

A study by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) found that about 2,300 jobs would be created in the state by solar panel installations through 2025, but “economy-wide jobs would be reduced by 750 through 2049, because of a loss of discretionary income that would have supported employment in other sectors in the economy.” 

This “loss of discretionary income” comes mostly from an increase in energy costs. New York State has estimated an increase of about 1–2 percent on ratepayers’ bills as it moves toward its clean energy goals.

Timothy Considine, a professor of economics at the University of Wyoming, studied the move to renewables in 12 states. He reported that the negative effects of higher electricity rates on employment outweigh the benefits. He predicted each state would lose some 5,000 jobs overall by 2020 as a result of the move toward renewables. 

Considine has been called a “frackademic,” because many of his studies have been used to support the natural gas industry. He did not reply to Epoch Times’ inquiries as of press deadline.

Different analysts include different factors in their equations and use different equations altogether when assessing the economic value of renewable energy, including employment opportunities. So while one analyst says we’ll lose jobs, another may say we’ll gain jobs.

And that’s to be expected, Sherwood said.

Renewables are “a fundamentally different way of generating electricity,” he said. “It becomes more difficult to project for the future, because you can’t just put in a model of what happened in the past and figure out what’s going to happen in the future. It’s reasonable or expected that different people have widely varying models of what’s going to happen 10 or 20 years from now.”

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