The Truth About All Those Green Jobs

Millions of new energy jobs? Perhaps, but the estimates may be a bit too rosy.

A rainbow is visible looking West from Palm Springs, Calif. on Monday, Jan. 28, 2008 next to an array of wind turbines.

A rainbow next to an array of wind turbines in Palm Springs, Calif.

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It's no wonder that the "green jobs" chant has become a chorus. What's not to like about the prospect of millions of newly created and hard-to-outsource positions? Particularly if they are filled by people hard at work designing and building and installing the very equipment that will overhaul the nation's energy habit—replacing, or at least diminishing, the nation's addiction to oil with plentiful, renewable, made-in-America energy. This idyllic vision is being trumpeted in newly Democratic Washington. As President Obama, who is planning to create 5 million jobs with a $150 billion investment, puts it, "A green, renewable-energy economy isn't some pie-in-the-sky, far-off future. It is now. It is creating jobs now."

As good as it sounds, just how real is the promise of all these green jobs? Sapped by the recession and collapsing oil prices, the fledgling green movement needs big government support to snap back in the short term. Because green energy is labor intensive, it promises many jobs, but a successful national shift from fossil fuels would mean pain for the 3.5 million whose jobs are tied to the traditional energy industry. Also, higher energy costs could threaten the payrolls of energy-intensive companies, particularly manufacturers.

For now, the massive stimulus bill has boosted the short-term fortunes of green energy. It puts $70 billion toward green initiatives—retrofitting buildings to slash their appetite for energy, upgrading public transit systems, and building an electrical grid that can better integrate renewable energy. The stimulus also demonstrates a key shift in public attitudes toward the green agenda, says Robert Pollin, an economist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and a leading researcher on green jobs. "It's the first time the notion that investment in a clean-energy economy is connected officially in government policy with the idea of job creation," Pollin says.

The recession has stunted the green growth spurt, as financing has slowed for wind projects and solar firms have laid off workers, but industry proponents and business people are focused on Washington. "I am very optimistic," says Andrei Guschin, a biofuels researcher who cofounded an algae technology firm in 2006. "A big chunk of this optimism comes from the new administration."

Green industries are heavily reliant on manpower, an aspect that makes them especially alluring when it comes to government-led job creation. Pollin's research at the Political Economy Research Institute, commissioned by the liberal Center for American Progress, estimates that $100 billion in green investment would create 2 million jobs, while $100 billion handed out to households (as in the 2008 stimulus package) would create 1.7 million jobs, and $100 billion spent on the oil industry would create only 542,000 jobs.

Despite the political rhetoric about green jobs, many people still aren't completely sure what those jobs are. Broadly, they include everything from scientists and engineers devising technological breakthroughs to people building wind turbines and installing solar panels. A national movement toward energy efficiency would include such labor-intensive work as retrofitting buildings, which puts roofers, insulation installers, and carpenters to work on existing structures. Improving the nation's mass transit system would require welders and civil engineers and dispatchers.

The bulk of those jobs are clearly blue-collar. Skeptics charge that the green movement will create jobs with lower wages than the fossil fuel industry positions they're replacing. Labor unions already are angling for a hand in the green workforce, promising to lift pay.

Of course, a secretary at a solar company could also be considered to be working in a green job. "Sometimes, I think the discussion of green jobs focuses on niches—the green economy as a niche or addition to the regular economy," says K.C. Golden, policy director for the nonprofit environmental advocacy group Climate Solutions and coauthor of the book Green Jobs: A Guide to Eco-Friendly Employment. "I think of it as a greening of the economy at large. A lot of these jobs are going to be in existing sectors. We are going to need a dramatic move away from fossil fuels."