Climate Corner: Jobs, the Economy & Renewable Energy – George Banziger

When I was vacationing in northern Minnesota in summer 2019, I took a boat tour of the Port of Duluth. The tour guide pointed out a large number of wind turbines that had just arrived from Germany and were bound for Kansas. I asked myself, “Why aren’t these wind turbines (which are usually made of fiberglass) being manufactured and shipped from manufacturers in the U.S–or more specifically from eastern Ohio where I live. Ohio has a strong manufacturing base and our region has a long tradition of glass making   Besides manufacturing infrastructure we need human-resource development for renewables. It struck me that educational institutions need to strengthen their programs in engineering and technician training for the rapidly growing economy of renewable energy including the manufacture of wind turbines, wind-turbine towers (80-foot structures made of steel), and solar panels.

     The future of the energy economy and jobs in the U..S. clearly lies in renewables, especially wind and solar power. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (U.S. Department of Labor) predicts that the fastest employment growth from 2016-2026 is expected to be in the occupations of solar photovoltaic installers (105% increase) and wind turbine service technicians (96% increase).  Also projected to grow are the occupations of environmental engineers, conservation scientists, hazardous materials removal workers, and wind and solar technicians. All of these occupations are predicted to result in median annual salaries higher than the median salary for all jobs in the U.S; for example, environmental engineers are predicted to make $86,000/year, and technicians $50,230/year. The predicted growth in these occupations is faster than the average growth of all occupations in the U.S. and reflects rapid increase in jobs in renewable energy. There are currently 360,000  jobs in the solar energy sector (more than the number of jobs in the coal and nuclear energy sectors combined). And there are another 102,000 jobs in wind energy (the generation of wind energy tripled from 2008-2016).

     In 1979 there were 225,000 jobs in the coal industry; now there are about 53,000 (NBC News, 2019). Utility companies are shutting down coal-fired power plants as the energy market shifts toward renewables and natural gas.  These are market forces at work. Of course, we should not abandon coal workers to poverty and neglect—we should support them with vocational training, health-care benefits, and other assistance to help them and their communities through this transition toward renewable energy.  While the market forces forces in the energy economy make this transition, it is in the national interest to support former coal workers but also to support the advancing economy of renewable energy. It is renewable energy that will address the urgent need to confront climate change and reduce carbon emissions, which should be strong national and international objectives.

     Not only do renewable energy sources reduce carbon emissions in the generation of electrical power, but they are also less expensive than most other sources. The cost of wind and solar energy per megawatt hour are $50 and $58 respectively, while the cost of coal is $100 and nuclear $110 (Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis, 2018).  

     Electrical generation from renewables has tripled since 2001 (Energy Information Administration, 2019), mostly due to the rapid growth of wind energy. It is estimated that half of the world’s  power will be delivered  from solar and wind sources by 2050. We have seen some of this growth in our region in the new AEP-Ohio solar hub in Highland County.

       There has been much discussion and promotion of natural (shale) gas in our region. Natural gas is an important resource to bridge the transition from coal to renewables, but at the current cost of $1.79 per 1,000 cubic feet (March 2020 spot price according to the Energy Information Administration– that price was over $9 in 2000), profitability is in question. It is hard to imagine that many companies can operate profitably at that price, much less provide sustainable jobs to support the economy long term. One recent sign of the impact of this price decline of natural gas is the declaration of bankruptcy by Chesapeake Energy, a pioneer in hydraulic fracturing of shale gas.