Jobs and renewables: are they there?

One poignant impression we gleaned from hosting the recent solar tours was that one-fifth of the visitors were recent victims of corporate downsizing. Many visitors were highly trained and educated with careers in computers, electronics, tool-making and manufacturing. Many had early military experiences that prepared them for their careers. They had held middle class jobs and were now struggling to find employment. One older man learning real estate appraisal calculated he was being paid the equivalent of $2 per hour. Their excellent technical backgrounds qualified them for jobs in the renewable energy field. With the continued dramatic growth expected in wind, solar and biomass energy over the next decade, it seems reasonable to assume the field would provide excellent job opportunities in engineering, design, installation and maintenance. Unfortunately, some people we interviewed near the new Lee County wind farm felt too few skilled local people acquired good paying jobs. While some local jobs did exist, the firm relied on work crews that move around the country from one site to another. Opportunities for employment in the manufacturing side of the industry are even less promising considering the country of origin of the firms making renewable energy equipment. According to a report by Navigant Consulting, only 14 percent of the 410 MW wind installations in the United States in 2002 were manufactured by U.S. companies. Although some manufacturing occurs in the U.S., nearly 80 percent of wind generators are manufactured by Danish firms. Astro Power, the only major U.S. firm manufacturing solar electric panels, accounted for 25 percent of the new installed capacity in the United States in 2002. The firm is now under severe financial stress and is losing market share. The United States has been the world leader in developing renewable energy technologies. Although much of that work is paid for by our federal tax dollars, our government’s support lags far behind the projected growth of the industry over the next decade. Competition from Japanese and German firms is intensifying as those countries invest four to five times as much money in solar electricity as does our government. We now find our companies are without a major market share in the renewable energy industry and are likely to continue to lose market share and jobs unless U.S. government support matches those of Europe’s and Japan’s governments. We have the skills and knowledge to support a viable renewable energy manufacturing base. Renewable energy technologies remain extremely popular with American citizens. One recent poll indicates more than 90 percent of Americans think our use of renewables should be expanded. Their popularity stems from their environmental benefits, job opportunities, enhancement of energy security, decreased dependence on imported oil and natural gas, ability to dampen price increases and role in decreasing stress on the electrical grid. Several victims of corporate downsizing who examined our installations are determined to make dramatic reductions in their use of energy. They are insulating their homes, cutting back on appliances, switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs, searching for the most efficient heating and cooling technologies, and converting to fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel. They are also gathering data and making decisions that enhance their own energy independence. They no longer trust corporations and our government to develop energy plans that reflect their needs and interests. We were somewhat surprised by the survivalist mentality of these victims of corporate downsizing. They were not driven by the youthful and highly idealist expectations of the 1970’s solar revolution. They were veterans of military service, corporate service and commitments to middle class values who had paid their dues, given their best and felt betrayed by economic and political policies driven by global agendas which ignore the adverse consequences on local and state economies. It did leave us wondering how widespread these feelings are in our society.

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