Or why climate change is not the only reason to support the new economy.
Here’s the thing about solar panels: robots and drones can’t put them on your roof. The industry is decades away from the sort of automation that has stripped jobs from steel mills and car factories.
There are many things that disturb me about the leadership this country is about to have, but as I go to sleep tonight, that’s a moot point. When we wake up tomorrow, we will begin a new era when we see the entire clean energy industry at risk, the whole health and future of the planet threatened. But it doesn’t need to be that way.
The vote was a primal scream from the center of a country that has lost industry, seen small towns ghosted, witnessed cities gutted. The middle of America has experienced the sort of economic decline that the inner cities saw decades ago. And while the expression of that anger may be different, the cause of it and potential cure for it are very similar.
America needs a flourishing economy, and that requires stable, well-paid jobs in growing industries. Americans want healthy families, and that requires clean air and water in a healthy environment. And we all want a safe and secure society, and that requires economic stability and positive prospects for all.
Clean energy jobs could be a sizable part of that solution.
Recently, a Finnish company opened a billion dollar steel mill in Pennsylvania. Great! Bring back the steel workers’ jobs! But the reality is that automation meant the behemoth created only 400 jobs. Oil, gas and coal conglomerates have worked out how to eke more fossil fuels out of the earth by focusing on offshore drilling, tar sand extraction, and mountaintop removal. Great! More energy! But the reality is that the industries don’t create many jobs, but do create increasingly large risks for the quality of life of Americans.
Polluted water flaming in rural kitchen sinks, oil spills clogging up beach communities, earthquakes shattering the fracked countryside… even if there was any doubt about climate change, there are many other reasons to look for new and easier sources of energy. Solar and wind create energy without the side effects. Sure, there are some: concentrated solar plants can harm birdlife, as can spinning wind turbines, and the storage that will be needed to take clean energy mainstream requires mining lithium, cobalt, and other rare earth metals. None of it is completely harmless, but the low hanging fruit of the clean energy industry is a better option that scraping the barrel for the last of the fossil fuels.
The clean energy industry offers the sort of jobs that can’t be outsourced to other countries or performed by robots. While a solar panel manufacturing plant is relatively automated, the installation of the panels is not. On the other hand, jobs in coal, for example, have declined as coal companies have transitioned from having people navigate a network of underground mines to having massive machines eat the top of mountains. Other fossil-fuel-based energy sources have similar stories.
As the old-energy jobs have declined at a small but consistent rate, well-paid green collar jobs have boomed. We are still at the earliest stage in the solar and wind revolutions, yet solar has shown consistent double-digit growth rates, eclipsing the coal industry in number of jobs.
We are living in a new economy, one that can’t look to old sources for well-paid, stable jobs in America. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t good jobs that can bring income and opportunity back to the heartland. My wish for the new Administration is that it ignores those who have paid to have a seat at the table and looks to where the job growth will be greatest. If so, they can radically reform the energy industry, not because the planet needs it, but because the middle of America needs the jobs it will bring.
Copyright Deborah Knuckey, 2016.
I'm passionate about sustainable architecture + energy + food and how advances in their technology can help save the planet.