Green Jobs revolution promised by Obama in 2008; how’s it doing? Can big business simultaneously go green, and make green?

President Obama was elected in 2008 on a platform promising, among other things, a green jobs revolution.  That the way out of the economic mess of 2008-9, that threatened a global economic meltdown and catastrophic depression, was to support green technologies, green energy systems, and lead a wave of innovation and business in that area.  It’s worth taking a look back to see what happened as a result.

To listen to the Republicans of the world, you’d think the whole thing is a fiasco.  They keep hounding on Solyndra and other companies that didn’t make it.  No investment is guaranteed, however, so we should have expected some of the Dept of Energy investments to fail, right?  The real question is whether there’s an overall economic benefit, and whether the result makes a real difference to the climate.

It wouldn’t do to build a bunch of new businesses that are supposed to fix the climate, and we still wreck the climate because we did the wrong thing.

For example in the electric car field we have the deaths of Fisker Automotive, A123 Systems (bought out by Wanxiang), EnerDel (which averted going bankrupt) and Think as the failures.

Tesla Motors Gigafactory rendering

Tesla Motors Gigafactory rendering

There have been successes from the Dept of Energy investments in clean energy technologies, some of them very big.

The Nissan Leaf is selling very well, with strong sales growth, and the Tesla Model S is a phenomenal hit.  Tesla Motors is getting ready to build their Gigafactory that will eventually mean over 6,000 jobs and over 20,000 jobs total in the Reno area, as well as $100 billion in economic activity over the next few years.  And the products coming out of that factory will enable Tesla to be selling 500,000 electric cars a year by 2020.

If Tesla’s plans come true, those will be real jobs and real economic activity that was goosed into being in part by the Dept of Energy investments.

We keep seeing these pictures go by on Facebook/Twitter/Google+ proclaiming huge growth in solar energy, wind energy, and jobs for each.  What has really happened in those areas?

In August 2012, GreenTech Media published a report summarizing the growth in green jobs (Solar, Energy Efficiency, etc) in Massachussets.  That state is investing heavily in solar energy installation and energy efficiency, the state has plenty of companies developing green energy technologies.  It totaled out, in 2012, to almost 5,000 “clean energy firms” and over 70,000 jobs in the sector.  Further, job growth in that sector is growing at a phenomenal rate well over 10% a year.

Solar Energy jobs are, from what I understand it, split into engineering jobs designing new installations, and installer jobs that’s a specialized form of construction work to set up the systems.  Once installed a specific solar energy installation doesn’t require much maintenance.

Where solar energy jobs are an obvious result of the Green Jobs revolution, what are the Energy efficiency jobs?  That area focuses on making buildings more efficient – better insulation, so the building uses less energy.  Less energy consumption is extremely green.  The work involves assessing buildings for energy efficiency improvements, and construction jobs to do the actual work.

The National Solar Jobs Census of 2013 found that over 140,000 Americans were working in solar energy jobs during that year.  Employment in Solar is expected to grow by 15.6% in 2014.

The 2012 Solar Jobs Census showed 119,000 Americans working in solar energy.

These are incredible job growth rates – 12% a year in Massachussets, over 15% a year for 2014.  Woah.

What’s causing this high job growth rate is in part the falling prices for solar panels and installed systems.  I’d first seen evidence of that trend line over 10 years ago.  A solar industry executive predicted in congressional testimony that solar power was on a price curve which would make it directly cost competitive against fossil fuel energy by 2020 or so.

The image shown here was published in June 2014 by the Financial Post, and validates that testimony.  Cost per watt has fallen from $10 in 2000 to nearly $2 in 2013, and at the same time installations of solar power systems are shooting through the roof.

A report last Fall on the Huffington Post went over why the solar industry has already won against fossil fuels.  Thousands of new jobs, fueled by a huge increase in solar energy system installations, fueled by rapidly falling prices for those systems.  At the same time the fossil fuel industry is losing jobs.

It’s not just solar energy that’s seeing a huge growth rate.  So, too, is wind energy installations.  That growth of installed wind energy capacity comes with jobs growth in in that sector, of course.

Wind turbine manufacturers are constantly working to increase the size of the turbines.  This will increase the impact of each installed turbine.

A year ago the Dept of Energy put out a report — Revolution Now: The Future Arrives for Four Clean Energy Technologies — discussing the trending we’re seeing in this post.

This chart shows the trend of falling costs for installed wind energy capacity, and the growth in that capacity.  What’s different in this chart versus the solar energy chart is that the cost has essentially leveled out since 2001.

The report also covers LED lighting – for which there’s a similar curve of rapidly falling prices, and rapidly increasing deployment – and electric vehicles – for which the price curve is falling, but not exactly rapidly, and deployment is rapidly rising.

Next week the UN is hosting a big climate change summit.  This meeting isn’t meant to establish any concrete policies, but to put wind in the sails of the whole effort to address climate change.

Related to that meeting, the Global Commission on the Economy & Climate put out a report on how there can be economic revival and economic growth, precisely from addressing climate change.

A big critique of changing the economy to address environmental and climate issues is that the economy will die as a result.  Maybe what will die is the old industries that rely on fossil fuels.  As we’ve seen above, and as this report demonstrates, new industries will replace the fossil fuel based industries.  Jobs and economic activity will simply switch from one energy source to another.
Well, “simply” isn’t the right word there, because the change won’t at all be simple.

The report says: “Many of the perceived short- to medium-term trade-offs between economic growth and climate action disappear when policy is examined in a dynamic context of change, and when existing economic inefficiencies and the multiple benefits of action are taken into account.”

And: “Maintaining or strengthening economic growth to 2030 will require a significant increase in investment, including an estimated cumulative US$89 trillion of investment in infrastructure. A shift to low-carbon infrastructure will have an additional impact, changing both the timing and mix of infrastructure investment. A low-carbon transition across the entire economy could be achieved with only 5% more upfront investment from 2015-2030.”And: “From a broader financial perspective, the global economy could create value from the transition to low-carbon energy. Low-carbon infrastructure has significantly lower operating expenses and a longer expected lifespan than fossil fuel assets. Low-carbon infrastructure also has the potential to achieve lower costs of capital.”

In other words, moving to clean energy systems should be good business.  Lower operating costs, lower capital costs, and lots of investment opportunities.  The financial moguls should be highly interested in this.What will make a big change is the result of solar energy and wind energy systems costs falling below the cost for fossil fuel energy systems.  The companies that want to sell electricity will have a hard time continuing to buy fossil fuel systems if solar or wind costs less.

The pattern we saw above is falling costs for wind, solar, and other technologies, causes increased deployment of those technologies.  The total deployment is still small compared to the size of the fossil fuel industry.  But, if the rapid growth sustains itself the totals will eventually start to make a dent in the overall problem.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.
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About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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