Expert Voices

'Green' Jobs are Rising, But Will it Continue? (Op-Ed)

Tesla Motors
A Tesla Roadster sits on the side of the road next to wind turbines. (Image credit: Tesla Motors)

Peter Lehner is executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). This Op-Ed will appear onthe NRDC blog Switchboard. Lehner contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Tesla, the electric-car manufacturer, announced last week that it plans to spend $5 billion to build a factory in Nevada. The giant facility — they're calling it a "gigafactory" — will employ 6,500 people to manufacture batteries for Tesla's much-anticipated, low-cost, Model 3 sedan. 

Tesla's move comes on top of a spate of green job announcements this year, demonstrating that clean energy is surviving despite systematic attacks from the fossil fuel industry and its backers in the U.S. Congress. 

The broadsides keep coming, however, and the clock is ticking on key policies that will shape the fate of clean energy in this country — namely, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)'s Clean Power Plan, which will cut carbon pollution from power plants nationwide , and a suite of clean-energy tax incentives.   

According to the report "Clean Energy Works for US" from E2, a business group affiliated with NRDC, clean energy and clean transportation job announcements in the 2nd quarter of 2014 doubled the first-quarter tally, with more than 12,500 new jobs announced in 29 states from April to June, and more than 18,000 already this year. Fortune, which cited the E2 report, said, "The growth spurt in green energy projects is partly a reaction to the [EPA's] Clean Power Plan." 

The new federal carbon-pollution standards, proposed by EPA in June, are expected to create hundreds of thousands of jobs in a variety of fields as states broaden their efforts to cut pollution. Wind technicians, solar installers, factory workers, roofers, HVAC technicians and thousands of others will all be needed to expand clean energy and make homes and buildings more efficient. 

Many of the new jobs announced this quarter stem from remnants of projects that qualified for a wind-energy tax incentive, a program which expired at the end of 2013. Clean-energy tax incentives, unlike many permanent oil and gas subsidies, have to be actively renewed by Congress — in some cases, every year. The last time these credits expired, thousands of jobs were lost and many clean energy projects sacrificed, according to a report from the International Renewable Energy Agency.

Solar-job growth, according to E2's analysis, has been spurred in part by a rising number of homeowners choosing to install solar panels on their roofs. Some states make solar installations even more attractive by allowing consumers to sell extra energy back to the grid. At my home in New York, my solar panels help make my meter run backward, lowering my electric bill. Residents of Arizona, California and Massachusetts can do the same, making solar a smart financial decision for many consumers in these states. 

In New York, solar will get another big boost thanks to K-Solar, a program that offers free solar assessments to all public schools in the state. If a school decides solar is a good fit, it gets help with the process — and discounts on solar systems — through a collective purchasing plan. And students get a chance to see clean energy at work first-hand. Some schools will even be able to expand or reinstate academic programs that were cut for budgetary reasons, thanks to the energy savings from solar. 

While state incentives like those can help accelerate the shift to clean energy, entrepreneurs play an important role, too. In St. Louis, Mo., an orthopedic surgeon launched his own solar company, StraightUp Solar, after discovering there were no licensed solar installers in the state. The company's business has grown by word-of-mouth, and StraightUp Solar now even counts an erstwhile coal miner among its team.

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Clean energy is putting America to work, so why are threats to that success continuing to mount?

Big Oil's Congressional allies continue to block renewal of expired clean-energy policies, taking away incentives for wind, solar power and energy efficiency while allowing the oil industry to continue enjoying a century of taxpayer support. Some oil subsidies date as far back as 1916. 

Today, taxpayers fork over roughly $8 billion each year to subsidize dirty fossil fuels — and those are just the costs revealed in the federal budget. A report from the National Academy of Sciences estimates that the additional, hidden costs of burning fossil fuels totals $120 billion each year. That figure is considered conservative, as it's based solely on death and illness due to air pollution and damage to agriculture and forestry; it does not include billions of dollars in climate damages, national security costs, or other ecosystem damage. 

Continuing to subsidize dirty fossil fuels while pulling the rug out from under clean, renewable energy simply makes no sense. Studies show that clean energy and efficiency investments generate more jobs per dollar than fossil fuel investments. A single wind energy project can create more than 1,000 jobs and provide millions of dollars to local communities, as demonstrated in a recent NRDC report. And clean energy, unlike dirty fossil fuel energy, helps stabilize the climate and clear up air pollution. 

That's why it's important to keep moving forward with a framework that supports clean energy's success — smart policies that allow this industry to continue to grow and create jobs, that help consumers save money, and cut the harmful pollution that threatens our health and economy.

Dirty energy is yesterday's news. Don't let polluters turn back the clock. 

Author's Note: You can tell Congress to restore clean energy incentives via this NRDC link

Read more from NRDC on their Op-Ed and features page. Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.

Executive Director