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Green Jobs Grow Strong in Hard Times

Bob Deans

Posted September 20, 2011

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House Republicans are using the failure of Solyndra, the solar panel maker, to launch a political broadside, attacking President Obama and his visionary program to promote energy efficiency, renewable power and American jobs.

Solyndra’s bankruptcy has raised important questions. The FBI and others will find the answers. If there’s been misconduct, those responsible will be held to account.

In attacking green jobs, though, House Republicans are striking at one of the bright spots in our struggling economy. For nearly 3 million American families, green jobs are a lifeline in hard times.

Captives of the same tea party gang that drove the country to the brink of default last month, House Republicans have now mounted an equally reckless assault on this vital source of economic health.  

The spirit of this GOP offensive is best reflected in the title that House Oversight & Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Ca., has assigned to a Thursday hearing: “How Obama’s Green Energy Agenda is Killing Jobs.”

Really, Mr. Chairman?

I hope every citizen everywhere who cares about putting Americans back to work, strengthening our economy and investing our national politics with a modicum of common decency will tune in to this hearing or read about it afterwards. It promises to be revelatory on all counts.

As we do, here are some facts we might all bear in mind.


Q. What’s happening with green jobs?

A. Green jobs are growing strong in a weak economy, supporting nearly 3 million American families in hard times.

In 2009, there were 2.2 million green jobs in America, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. By July, 2011, there were 2.7 million, according to the Brookings Institution.

Most of these jobs didn’t exist a decade ago. Since then, we’ve lost 4.5 million factory jobs. Those jobs are gone, they’re not coming back, and there’s not much we can do about it.

What we can do is invest in the jobs of the future. Green jobs are a big part of that.


Q. Why?

A. The world is quickly moving toward greater energy efficiency and cleaner, safer, more sustainable sources of power and fuel. Building a sound economy demands this shift, which will attract trillions of dollars in investment over the coming decade.

Last year alone, the United States, China, Germany and 17 other of the world’s top economic powers invested a total of $243 billion in clean energy technologies, up 30 percent from the year before. If the global green economy were a country, it would be the 34th-richest in the world, just ahead of Finland.

Between 2010 and 2035, we’ll invest $5.7 trillion, globally, just on wind, solar and other sources of renewable electricity, the International Energy Agency estimates in its new World Energy Outlook (go here and click on executive summary).

And that doesn’t count the investments – worth scores of billions of dollars a year – going toward making our homes and workplaces more efficient, investments that McKinsey & Company estimates could cut U.S. non-transportation energy use 23 percent by 2020.

All of this is good news for American workers, because we have the skills it takes to get the job done.


Q. What kinds of jobs?

A. In 2005, we spent about $3 billion on sustainable workplaces and other green construction. Last year, that work topped $55 billion. In 2015, it will amount to $135 billion, according to McGraw Hill Construction, which reports that “green building is the bright spot in an otherwise tough economy.”

That means real jobs in hard times for contractors, carpenters, cement workers, truck drivers and others – literally hundreds of thousands of them.

What about wind? About 87,000 engineers, steelworkers, machinists and others are employed designing, building or installing wind turbines, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Wind energy is real. Nationally, we're getting 3.3 percent of our electricity from wind, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Texas, the oil capital of the world, is getting 8 percent of its electricity from wind turbines, which are helping to keep ranchers and farmers viable amid epic drought. Over the past four years, one company alone, Charlotte-based Duke Energy, has invested more than $1.8 billion building wind farms across the country.

About 100,000 Americans now work in the solar power and solar heating industry, which takes in more than 5,000 companies around the country. These are good jobs for engineers, manufacturers, electricians, plumbers, physicists, chemists and others, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There are many other examples, because, the fact is, our world is changing, and our workforce is changing with it. That's what American progress is all about.


Q. If green jobs are doing so well, why do we need taxpayers to pitch in?

A. We've got a jobs problem in this country. We've had unemployment rates of 8 percent or higher for nearly three years. Right now, 14 million Americans can't find work. That needs to change, and we all need to pitch in to make it happen.

Part of the answer, and an important part of the answer, is to invest in our future. There is no greater opportunity, and no more urgent imperative, than for us to invest in a sound and secure energy future.

That means efficiency. It means wind, solar and other renewable power sources. And it means sustainable communities.

All of that creates American jobs - more than 2.7 million to date, and growing, even in hard times.


Q. What about Solyndra?

A. Solyndra builds lightweight, advanced solar panels that generate electricity from sunlight. Its products have been installed in more than 1,000 facilities worldwide. Earlier this month, the company laid off its staff of 1,100 production workers, saying it would seek protection under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.

The company said its business was being hurt by foreign competition and the global credit crunch, which has made it hard for the company's customers to finance new projects. Under intense pressure from Chinese producers, prices for these panels have plummeted 42 percent over just the past year. That’s great for consumers, but it can be hard on manufacturers.


Q. Why is the company under investigation?

A. In 2009, the Department of Energy awarded Solyndra a $535-million loan guarantee, under a program designed to support clean energy companies exposed to the kinds of risks that typically accompany innovative, start-up industries.

By the end of last year, the DOE recognized financial troubles at Solyndra and, over the next several months, restructured the terms of the deal to try to reduce the chances taxpayer money would be lost. The bankruptcy, though, has put that money at risk. The FBI is investigating, as is the DOE’s office of Inspector General.


Q. Why the federal investigations?

A. With taxpayer money at risk, we need to know the facts. If there’s been wrongdoing, those responsible must be held to account.

But the world is moving toward cleaner, safer more sustainable sources of energy like solar power. Trillions of dollars are at stake over the coming decades. We're not going to turn our back on that opportunity every time an emerging industry experiences growing pains. That's now how America rolls.

We didn't pull the plug on Edison when the first light bulb blew out. We didn't close up shop the first time a Ford got a flat. And we're not about to give up on the solar industry and the vital jobs it creates.


Q. How big is the solar industry in our country?

A. Solar capacity has had annual growth topping 45 percent every single year since 2005. Last year it doubled and it grew by nearly 70 percent during the first half of 2011, despite the languid economy.

We now generate enough solar electricity in our country to power nearly every home in a city the size of Philadelphia. Additional construction is underway to increase that output by one-third, in offices, on rooftops to power highway road signs and elsewhere.

We need to build on that progress – and American workers have what it takes to do that.


Q. Because we’re number one?

A. Bell Telephone Laboratories invented the photovoltaic cell – to convert sunlight into electricity – in 1954. Four decades later, we continued to dominate, producing 40 percent of the world’s solar panels.

Now, though, we make just 6 percent; we’ve been losing ground to competitors in Europe and Asia.

“But none have been as aggressive as the Chinese government, which last year alone provided more than $30 billion in credit to its country’s largest solar manufacturers. That’s roughly 20 times larger than America’s investment in the same period,” Jonathan Silver, executive director of the DOE’s Loan Programs Office, testified Sept. 14 before the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. 

China’s strategy is working. Five years ago, China made very few solar panels. Now it controls half the global market. It is home to five of the ten largest solar panel makers in the world.

“Why is China making this investment? Because the race for solar manufacturing jobs is a race worth winning,” said Silver. “Over the next few decades, this will become a global market worth trillions of dollars.”


Q. What is China doing that we're not?

A. China treats solar power as a strategic industry. China's goal is to dominate the world market for solar equipment, much as Japan became an auto export giant. The Chinese are well on their way.

Beijing provides Chinese solar companies with competitive advantages that dwarf anything the DOE might provide American firms. Through low-interest loans and other subsidies, the government provides Chinese solar makers with billions of dollars in direct aid. It provides land for manufacturers. And wages are low: $2,640 a year for an engineer, according to the New York Times.

Bottom line: China has identified solar exports as a national priority, and it has tailored national policies and devoted national resources to achieving that goal. The strategy is working - at the expense of U.S. companies and American workers.


Q. It sounds like we're falling behind.

A. The risk is that we become reliant on China for equipment that is fast becoming essential to an efficient economy, much as we've long been dependent upon countries like Saudi Arabia for oil. There's got to be a better way.


Here's our view.

Countries all over the world are working to move beyond fossil fuels. They won't last forever. They're getting harder to find, riskier to develop and more expensive to buy. They're destroying our planet and threatening our health.

Solar technology is part of the answer. It's rapidly reshaping the global energy future. Trillions of dollars are up for grabs over the coming decades. We cannot stand by and cede that future to our competitors - in China or anywhere else. We must invest in our future, put Americans back to work and strengthen our economy going forward. 


Q. But isn't government especially bad at picking winners and losers? Why not let the free market sort all that out?

A. From the moment of its founding, our country has rallied around important national goals and then summoned the collective resources to achieve them.

George Washington called us to build great canals that linked markets and ports to factories and farms. Lincoln believed in the power of rail stretching from sea to shining sea. Roosevelt electrified the rural South. Eisenhower built the interstate highway system. Kennedy sent us to the moon, a mission that ushered in the technological beginnings of computers, smart phones and the Internet.

Each of these national achievements, and more, began with a common vision of what this nation might become and where the American people, together, might go. No single person or political party took us there. We arrived by working together, and that's what we must do now.

We can build energy efficient cars, homes and workplaces. We can create communities that give us more choices in how we live and commute. We can harness power from the wind and the sun. And we can compete with the best in the world.

We must make up our minds to do so, and then gather the means to prevail. This isn't about picking winners and losers. It's about winning. Winning in the race for the jobs of tomorrow, creating those jobs today, and putting our future on solid ground for generations to come.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

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