Green Energy and Jobs: Proceed With Caution

Posted: Mar 04, 2009 10:45 AM
Green Energy and Jobs: Proceed With Caution

The creation of “green-collar” jobs is a major component of President Obama’s energy and economic strategy. Opportunities for achieving realistic goals should certainly be pursued, and many “green” projects do represent sound economics.

“Smart meters” and better attic, wall and window insulation reduce energy expenditures, and quickly pay back investments. Better sequencing of traffic lights speeds commuters to workplaces, saves gasoline, cuts pollution, and reduces accidents. Telecommuting also saves energy.

New technologies enable smelters and factories to recycle waste heat, to power turbines and generate electricity. Energy-efficient computers and servers mean big savings in power-hungry data centers that facilitate banking, Internet searches, modern business operations and YouTube.

Such initiatives also create “green” jobs. Renewable energy and energy efficiency industries already generate 8.5 million such jobs in the United States, claims a 2007 report from the American Solar Energy Society, and could create “as many as 40 million” by 2030.

However, numerous other green initiatives would not survive without mandates, renewable energy standards, tariffs and taxpayer-financed subsidies that borrow money or take funds from one economic sector and transfer it to another. 

Energy-efficiency efforts have been ongoing for decades. Calling the relevant positions “green-collar” is good PR, but often merely redefines previously existing jobs and doesn’t expand the actual employment base. Moreover, many of these jobs are low-paying labor and construction jobs – and money spent on marginal initiatives isn’t available for critical problems like crime, AIDS, drug abuse, failing schools, heating bill assistance, and repairing bridges and roads.

The ASES report includes direct and indirect employment associated with retrofitting buildings, installing insulation or solar panels, constructing transmission lines from unreliable wind farms, producing biofuels and fuel-efficient vehicles, and designing and manufacturing supplies for projects. Even accountants, lawyers, salesmen, repairmen, truck drivers, landscapers, bureaucrats and lobbyists associated with these activities are included – and separating new jobs from redefined old jobs is difficult.

Does a maintenance position become a “green” job, because the office building switches from incandescent to compact fluorescent bulbs? Is a laborer now a green-collar worker because the trees he plants on the west side of a building reduce air-conditioning needs, or the last load of concrete was part of the 400-ton base of a wind turbine tower? Is a farmer “green” because he quarter of his acreage is devoted to corn for ethanol?

Of greater concern, restricting hydrocarbon energy use or imposing tough climate change rules could terminate millions of high-quality existing jobs that require carbon fuels, and likely won’t be replaced by green-collar positions. So it’s important that we honestly separate hype and hope from reality, practicality and unintended consequences.

Solar panels to generate electricity have maximum 30-year lifetimes – but require a century of energy savings to equal installation costs, says the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

Wind turbines typically generate at their rated capacity only 25% of a year, and often at only 10% on freezing winter nights and sweltering summer afternoons, because that is when the wind is at low ebb.

Ethanol requires huge amounts of land, water and natural gas, to replace a small portion of our gasoline with an expensive fuel that drives up the cost of food and gets cars 10% less mileage per tank.

Compressed natural gas vehicles represent only 120,000 of America’s 235,000,000 cars and light trucks. Honda’s CNG-powered Civic costs $7000 more than the regular model, but has half the range. And opposition to drilling means fewer gas supplies and higher prices in the face of increasing demand.

Fossil fuels provide 85% of the energy Americans use; nuclear power an additional 8 percent. They have brought us unprecedented health, opportunity and prosperity. Wind and solar combined produce a minuscule 0.5% of total US energy.

Conservation, efficiency and renewables will not soon bridge this enormous energy gap. Hobbling the energy system we have – and claiming we can replace it with costly technologies that don’t yet exist – puts people’s livelihoods, living standards and health at risk.

Locking up the oil and gas in our Outer Continental Shelf, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and western states would force us to continue spending $300-500 billion a year on foreign oil – and forego up to $3 trillion in lease bonus, rent, royalty, and personal and corporate tax revenues.

Eliminating hydrocarbons and creating wind and solar jobs would require dismantling an existing infrastructure that provides abundant, reliable, affordable energy for homes, businesses, factories, hospitals, schools, and millions of jobs – and replacing it with a largely experimental system that would require legislative mandates, cost a trillion taxpayer dollars in subsidies, and likely result in net job losses.

Advocates of a carbon-free economy need to explain how we can ignore hydrocarbon revenues, spend enormous sums subsidizing renewable-energy and green-job programs, and operate homes and factories on expensive intermittent energy. They must prove America will be able to compete with a Europe that is backing away from green-energy and CO2-reduction pledges, to protect jobs – or with China and India, which are building new coal-fired power plants every week to power expanding industries.

They need to show how they will compensate American workers, families, business owners, investors and pensioners who will be adversely affected by anti-hydrocarbon and anti-nuclear policies. They must demonstrate why draconian global warming rules are needed, when global temperatures have been stable for nearly a decade, even as carbon dioxide levels have continued to rise.

The recent “stimulus” was signed into law without any hearings or debates – even without any member of Congress or the White House having an opportunity to read the legislation beforehand or understand what earmarks, subsidies, political payoffs, or major healthcare and energy policies were buried in its 1033 pages. As Fortune magazine has noted, the Administration has put a “premium on speed” – speed to “take advantage of a crisis to put in place a Democratic vision of government’s role, speed to pass major legislation while the President is riding high in the polls.”

However, for reasons just noted, transparency, discussion and debate on energy, environmental and economic issues are essential. That is why Maine-based Exception Magazine, Washington-based DC Progress, and other analysts and public policy groups are committed to investigating claims about renewable energy, green-collar jobs, global warming and other current issues.

“Trust but verify” is as vital now as during the Reagan years. A vibrant, innovative America is far too priceless to sacrifice on the altar of environmental ideology.

We need more green-collar jobs. But we also need to safeguard existing jobs, examine claims carefully and dispassionately – and avoid killing the energy we have, while we develop new energy for the future.

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