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Where Are All the Green Jobs?

During the 2008 campaign season, voters heard a lot about green jobs that were going to help reverse slipping employment numbers while reducing American dependence on foreign oil. America, it was said, would lead the world in creating a green economy that would triply silence threats to our economy, security, and environment. So where are all these green jobs? They’re coming, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis told the Associated Press Monday, but don’t hold your breath.

During the 2008 campaign season, voters heard a lot about green jobs that were going to help reverse slipping employment numbers while reducing American dependence on foreign oil. America, it was said, would lead the world in creating a green economy that would triply silence threats to our economy, security, and environment. So where are all these green jobs? They’re coming, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis told the Associated Press Monday, but don’t hold your breath.

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green jobs

Employment in the green economy is limited to just one-half of 1% of all U.S. jobs, and while that number was climbing last summer, the economic downturn put a damper on many green initiatives. The freezing of credit markets and a plunge in fossil fuel prices undermined the funding for many planned green energy projects while at the same time robbing them of their urgency. Meanwhile, after talk of the U.S. leading the world toward a green economy, China has taken a decisive lead in creating “green collar” jobs, accounting for nearly a third of global solar cell production in 2008 and passing the U.S. in installed wind capacity in the first half of this year (China installed 4.5 Gw to the United States’ 4 Gw). In installed solar, Spain and Germany both outpaced the United States by wide margins, though the U.S. still leads Europe in wind power demand.

But as the larger economy goes, so go the green jobs, and things are starting to look up for both. Unemployment numbers ceased their slide (at least briefly) in July, and venture capital investments in alternative energy rose 73% in the last three months compared to the first three months of the year. “Once you start seeing more investments made in our economy recovering, as we stabilize and we get people back to work, then I think there’ll be more interest in expanding,” Solis said of the push for green jobs. But as the economy finds its feet, is America’s green renaissance upon us?

While the age of emission free motoring and renewable electrical power may be in its infancy, it’s going to take a long time to mature. Many wind and solar companies have cut back on employees as the economic climate has eaten away at bottom lines, and a disconnect between state and federal officials regarding the best way to spur green job development creates bureaucratic obstacles to getting stimulus cash into the right hands.

But the funding is coming. Last week Obama announced $2.4 billion in grants to be distributed to various companies developing electric vehicles and more efficient battery technologies. Energy Secretary Steven Chu last week said $3 billion in renewable energy grants will boost green employment, and that while it’s taking some time to review grant proposals, more federal dollars for green jobs are in queue.

What will these green jobs look like? Most will be in energy, at least initially, as America tries to divorce itself from fossil fuels–particularly foreign oil–but energy isn’t all turbines and photovoltaics. Energy efficient building will go a long way toward curbing energy consumption to levels that allow renewable resources to sufficiently power the grid. Meanwhile, upgrading that grid via new infrastructure, resource management software, and energy-smart urban planning will sync the way we live up with the way we generate energy.

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