Is Renewable Energy Good For The Economy?

workmen installing solar panels
The renewable energy industry creates thousands of direct and indirect jobs, boosting the economy.
(cc) Oregon Department of Transportation

Is renewable energy good for the economy? Does it create — or destroy — jobs? Would government investment in renewable energy create more or fewer jobs than a similar investment in traditional energy industries, such as oil and gas? As is so often the case, it depends on whom you ask.

A recent report by the National Petroleum Council suggests that development of new and existing oil and natural gas resources could create 1.1 million new jobs by 2020.

On the other hand, a report entitled “Green Recovery – A Program to Create Good Jobs and Start Building a Low-Carbon Economy,” prepared by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and commissioned by the Center for American Progress, provides an alternate view.

According to this report, a $100 billion green economic recovery package would, among other benefits, create two million jobs nationwide over two years, nearly four times more total jobs than spending the same amount of money within the oil industry.

Of course, all of this is potential, theoretical. How are renewable energy industries faring right now in terms of job creation?

Consider solar energy …

The Solar Foundation, a nonprofit solar education and research organization, last month released its second annual review of the solar workforce in the United States. It found that more than 100,000 Americans are already employed in the solar industry and that hiring is on the rise.

Andrea Luecke, executive director of The Solar Foundation, commented, “The solar industry has grown into a major economic force with more than 100,000 employees in the United States. We expect even greater growth in the foreseeable future. But policymakers, workforce training providers, and the industry must work together to continue creating good jobs for skilled workers.”

According to The Solar Foundation, as of August 2011, the National Solar Jobs Census 2011 identified more than 17,198 solar employment sites and 100,237 solar jobs in all 50 states. The solar industry’s job growth rate of 6.8 percent is significantly higher than the 2 percent net job loss in fossil fuel power generation and the economy-wide expectation of 0.7 percent growth over the same period.

At the state level, California continued to be the national leader in solar employment, with 25,575 workers. Rounding out the top 10 states are Colorado, Arizona, Pennsylvania, New York, Florida, Texas, Oregon, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Colorado, Arizona, Florida, Oregon, New Jersey, and Massachusetts showed the strongest growth rates from August 2010.

The Solar Foundation’s report, The National Solar Jobs Census 2011, indicated that solar employers expect to increase the number of solar workers by 24 percent, representing nearly 24,000 net new jobs by August 2012. Over the next 12 months, nearly half of solar firms expect to add jobs.

Obviously, expectations may not reflect reality, reinforcing why it’s important for government to support job creation with appropriate policies and funding. Luecke explains, “Employers expressed similar optimism last year, but failed to meet their hiring expectations because of stalled legislative initiatives and continued policy uncertainty.”

Still, Luecke is optimistic. “These survey responses merely reflect employers’ best estimates at expected new hiring, but it demonstrates a clear growth pattern for the industry and tremendous optimism by employers in the industry.

Further, the solar energy industry is only one among many contributing to the renewable energy economy. Add to this wind, biofuel, hydro, and geothermal, and we have a tremendous potential for economic gain.

Yet, in the long run, as important as job creation and the economy is, it’s only one factor to be considered when comparing the benefits of renewable energy and fossil fuels. Impact on the environment, public health, and quality of life all must be factored in. When this is done, renewable energy’s potential is hard to beat.

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