Op-ed: The economy, jobs and renewable energy
The future of the energy economy and jobs in the U.S. clearly lies in renewables, especially wind and solar power. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (U. S. Department of Labor) predicts that the fastest employment growth from 2016-2026 is expected to be in the occupations of solar photovoltaic installers (105% increase) and wind turbine service technicians (96% increase). Also projected to grow are the occupations of environmental engineers, conservation scientists, hazardous materials removal workers, and wind and solar technicians. All of these occupations are predicted to result in median annual salaries higher than the median salary for all jobs in the U.S.; for example, environmental engineers are predicted to make $86,800/year, and technicians $50,230/year. The predicted growth in these occupations (faster than the average growth of all occupations in the U.S.) reflects the rapid increase in jobs in the renewable energy. There are currently 360,000 jobs in the solar energy sector (more than the jobs in coal and nuclear energy combined), and another 102,000 jobs in wind energy (generation of wind power tripled from 2008-2016).
In 1979 there were 225,000 jobs in the coal industry; now there are about 53,000 (NBC News, 2019). Utility companies are shutting down coal-fired power plants as the energy market shifts toward renewables and natural gas. These are market forces at work. Of course, we should not abandon coal workers to poverty and neglect — we should support them with vocational training, health-care benefits, and other assistance to help them through this transition toward renewable energy. While the market forces in the energy economy make this transition, it is in the national interest to support former coal workers but also to support the advancing economy of renewable energy. It is renewable energy that will address the urgent need to confront climate change and reduce carbon emissions, which should be strong national and international objectives.
Not only do renewable energy sources reduce carbon emissions to generate energy, but they are also less expensive than most other sources. The costs of wind and solar energy per megawatt hour are $50 and $58 respectively, while the cost of coal is $100 and nuclear $110 (Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis, 2018).
Electrical generation from renewables has tripled since 2001 (Energy Information Administration, 2019), mostly due to the rapid growth of wind energy. It is estimated that half of the world’s power will be delivered from solar and wind sources by 2050. We have seen some of this growth in our region in the new AEP-Ohio solar hub in Highland County.
There has been much discussion and promotion of natural gas in our region. Natural gas is an important resource to bridge the transition from coal to renewables, but at the current cost of $2.29 per 1,000 cubic feet (July 2019 price according to tradingeconomics.com; that price was over $9 in 2000), it is hard to imagine that many companies can operate profitably at that price, much less provide sustainable jobs to support the economy long term.
When I was vacationing in northern Minnesota this past summer, I took part in a boat tour of the Port of Duluth. The tour guide on our boat pointed to a recently unloaded cargo visible on the shore and noted that this cargo was a shipment of wind turbines from Germany that was bound for Kansas. I asked myself, “Why are such wind turbines (which are usually made of fiberglass) not made in the U.S.A., and furthermore why aren’t they made in eastern Ohio, where I live?” Ohio has a strong base of manufacturing, and our area once enjoyed major glass-making manufacturing facilities. It struck me that what is needed in our region is a major commitment by educational institutions to train engineers and technicians in renewable energy occupations and by the manufacturing sector with the development of capability in making wind turbines, wind turbine towers (80-foot [or higher] towers made of steel), and solar panel manufacturing (most of the latter also involving glass-related manufacturing).
Let’s get Ohio and the Mid-Ohio Valley in concert with the rest of the world and the rest of country in the rapidly growing opportunities in renewable energy before we are left behind.
George Banziger, Ph..D., was a faculty member at Marietta College and an academic dean at three other colleges. Now retired, he is a member of the Green Sanctuary Committee of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Marietta, the Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action group, and the Citizens Climate Lobby.