WASHINGTON, Sept. 1, 2015 - If current federal and state support for the wind industry continues, jobs in the sector – currently at 73,000 -- could more than triple by 2030 (to 265,000) and increase by nine-fold (to 670,000) by 2050.
That’s the good-news forecast from the Energy Department’s “Wind Vision” report released earlier this year. In comparison, the U.S. oil and gas industry currently provides 625,000 jobs and the coal mining industry, 72,000 jobs, yet jobs in fossil fuel power generation have declined over the past four years.
Addressing the Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas last week, however, President Obama warned that renewable energy’s record-setting pace of creating new jobs could be slowed by “massive lobbying efforts backed by fossil fuel interests, or conservative think tanks, or the Koch brothers, pushing for new laws to roll back renewable energy standards or prevent new clean energy businesses from succeeding.”
Frank Maisano, an energy expert at Bracewell & Giuliani, doesn’t see the same threat to renewables.
“The problem with the president’s approach is that he only likes to cite the clean energy issues in a vacuum,” Maisano tells Agri-Pulse. “A lot of times he forgets about all the other energy-sector opportunities.” Specifically, Maisano says some experts believe that ending the ban on U.S. crude oil exports could create a surge of well-paid new jobs. Bracewell & Giuliani is a law and lobbying firm that represents traditional and renewable energy industry companies.
Luke Popovich, VP for external communications at the National Mining Association, shares Maisano’s concerns about the administration’s sole support for renewables. He warns that the administration ignores “the many fossil energy jobs they’ve destroyed” and instead only mentions the solar and wind energy jobs created. He adds that the new wind and solar jobs “wouldn’t exist without heavy federal subsidies to the renewable industry.”
Maisano sees benefits for all forms of energy and for the U.S. economy if there is a shift to truly “all-of-the-above” energy policies. “There’s no doubt that clean energy jobs are real opportunities, but it’s is not an either-or proposition,” he says. “We can do both.”
Maisano calls Southern Company “a perfect example of an energy company leader that is building all-of-the-above and creating thousands of new jobs.” He points to Southern’s recent projects, including a wind farm in Oklahoma, the Kemper clean coal plant in Mississippi, and a rooftop solar program and a new nuclear plant, both in Georgia. He adds that Southern is also creating jobs and expanding the use of clean energy by signing an agreement with China to share the new clean-coal technologies developed at the Kemper plant.
Based on his own work with both wind and solar projects, Maisano insists “there’s no doubt that renewable energy is a growth sector, no doubt that it is a tremendous opportunity, no doubt that we ought to keep pursuing it – just not at the expense of other energy sources.”
Rather than seeing a conspiracy to delay renewables, Maisano points out that renewable projects “always seem to go slower than we would hope. Offshore wind is a perfect example. When we were working on offshore wind projects in 2008 and 2009, we expected to have projects in the water by 2012 at the latest. At this point in 2015, we’re barely getting in the water with some of the small projects that should have been completed long ago.”
Maisano says any major energy project, whether it’s fossil fuel, nuclear or renewable, faces constant challenges including lawsuits, battles with state regulators over costs and other issues, and acquiring the necessary materials for construction. “All of those things are generally a problem when you’re trying to stand up new industries, whether it’s a renewable project, a clean coal project down in Mississippi, or a nuclear project. None of these projects ends up being as easy as it may sound in a political speech.
“No matter what you’re doing, whether it’s natural gas development, drilling up in the Arctic, trying to build a pipeline or a transmission line, or building a solar project or other renewables, those projects all face significant challenges from a legal standpoint, from a procedural or regulatory standpoint, and from a practical standpoint,” Maisano says. “Those obstacles lead to delays, cost overruns, and significant challenges in trying to make the next generation of energy projects work.”
The challenges also include a changing energy mix. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the electric power generation sector lost more than 5,800 jobs from January 2011 through June 2014, despite a gain of nearly 1,800 non-hydro renewable electricity generation jobs. The report attributes the changes to a combination of “energy efficiency improvements, and growth in distributed generation, such as behind-the-meter rooftop solar” and the fact that natural gas and renewable energy facilities are less labor intensive than traditional coal power plants.
The BLS report notes that coal plant closures, partially offset by new natural gas plants, drove the net loss of 1,750 fossil fuel power generation jobs since 2011. Another change is that nuclear power facilities have lost more than 4,900 jobs since 2011, largely due to reactor closures in California, Wisconsin and Florida.
In contrast, BLS notes that solar, wind, geothermal and biomass power all have grown significantly since 2011.
Various studies have documented the job creation associated with the ethanol industry. While ethanol production itself is not labor intensive (accounting for about 11,000 full-time equivalent jobs nationwide), the economic activity of supporting industries generates more than 379,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs in 2014, noted a study by ABF Economics.
The biodiesel industry has plants in nearly every state and last year, the industry’s record production of nearly 1.8 billion gallons supported more than 62,000 jobs across the economy, according to the National Biodiesel Board.
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