Like many Americans, I am an avid listener to American Public Radio’s Marketplace Show. As their website proudly proclaims: Marketplace [is] the most widely heard program on business and the economy — radio or television, commercial or public broadcasting — in the country. This past Friday, they did their weekly roundup on the economy and focused on manufacturing jobs because of emphasis provided on this topic by both of the Presidential campaigns. The guests were John Carney of the Wall Street Journal and Catherine Rampell from the Washington Post. At minute 3:00 Catherine weighs in on whether clean energy jobs would really put the laid off manufacturing sector workers back to work. At 4:30, John Carney shows his complete ignorance and claims that clean energy jobs are “science fiction”. I know that Marketplace knows better because Scott Tong does excellent clean energy reporting on the show on a regular basis.
Let’s set the record straight because Catherine and John clearly couldn’t do a basic Google search. The solar industry alone has created 1 out of every 80 jobs in the United States since the great recession. When including wind, LED lighting, and other clean energy categories that number could be close to 1 in 33. For the solar industry, a majority of these new jobs are blue collar construction and manufacturing jobs that pay an average of $21/hour – far higher than the $16/hour non-union manufacturing jobs that South Carolina was touting later in that episode. Amazingly even Kai Ryssdal got into the bashing showing incredulity that clean energy could make a dent in hiring laid off manufacturing and mining workers. In fact the solar industry has hired more veterans than anyone else, retrained coal workers, and even found a soft landing for oil & gas workers who have lost their jobs. The vast majority of solar/wind workers are trained in less than 6 months because their previous work experience and training is completely transferrable. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, wind technician is the fastest growing job category -- 108 percent over the next 10 years, more than twice as much as the next-fastest growing job, occupational therapy assistant. Related: Oil Spikes After EIA Reports Significant Crude, Gasoline Draw
In 2015, the manufacturing part of the solar and wind industries have over 100,000 people making pieces and parts in the United States. This is up 20 percent, or over 20,000 people over the previous year. In fact, this number is expected to continue to grow at that pace for the next five years.
How does an amazing show like Marketplace get these things so wrong? How do folks from the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal not know that solar and wind power now make up over 75 percent of new electric capacity additions in the United States – over $70B in new capital investment in 2016 alone. In so doing, these industries are making more money for investment banks, lawyers, accountant, and other advertisers for their newspapers and radio shows.
My sense is that these folks want to run as far away from environmentalists as possible. Clean energy in the United States has been defined by earnest environmentalists who, to their credit, embraced it wholeheartedly, but, to our collective detriment, spun an ideological, naïve story divorced from the reality of the energy economy transformation actually taking shape around us.
The result is that clean energy is mistakenly seen as a passive and precious solution for a future society—a delicate sunflower waving in the face of a muscular coal miner, a pristine field of green and sky of blue set against a dirt mound penetrated by a fracking rig. It feels more utopian than aspirational, more luxury than necessity. In short, it doesn’t feel American.
American is can-do, right-now, yes ma’am. Luckily, the actual transformation of the energy economy is as American as the Hoover Dam or the interstate highways, and even more earth-shaking. If only the discussion among politicians, media, business leaders, and—most importantly—the American public reflected that reality. Related: Oil Rallies On, Ignoring Saudi Production Claims
Unfortunately, the clean energy conversation is profoundly and unnecessarily polarizing. Like climate change itself, it’s become part of a larger culture war that fits neatly into the media’s all too predictable tendency of false equivalence, pitting workers against activists, businessmen against academics, and common sense against idealism. As a result, according to recent surveys, public sentiment about the urgency of action to prevent climate change is split along party lines between “LET’S DO SOMETHING!” and “meh.”
The energy might be clean, but the work and the jobs are as rooted in dirt, sweat, and back-breaking labor as any American endeavor, and even more lasting.
We need to change the conversation to align with the deep emotional and aspirational narratives that speak to the American public. Clean energy could feel as all-American, cutting-edge, rugged, reliable, resilient, and tough as fracking. The same American ideals of independence, freedom, self-sufficiency, and opportunity can bring together green advocates and Tea Party stalwarts, labor and entrepreneurs, main street and Wall Street.
Independence is the heart of American identity. Clean energy is independence turned into electrons: the application of cunning, sweat, and ingenuity to harness the restless power of the American landscape.
The American energy economy is changing, and changing rapidly. Clean energy and energy efficiency is where the growth is, and we can move of millions of people from coal mining, low-tech manufacturing, and even oil & gas into good paying jobs that don’t negatively impact their health or that of the planet. By rebranding Clean Energy, we can empower all Americans to work together for a stronger future. It’s time to get down and dirty.
By Jigar Shah
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