Ever since the economic crisis hit, lawmakers and businesses have been paralyzed by the fear that if they try to tackle environmental problems more jobs will be lost.
If they step back and analyze the situation, though, they will discover a very different reality.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit science advocacy group, recently released a report on the potential impact of establishing national renewable electricity standards. It found that requiring U.S. utilities to obtain 25 percent of their energy from renewable sources would create 297,000 jobs in the next 15 years.
That's three times as many jobs as are necessary to produce an equivalent amount of electricity from fossil fuels. The net benefit would be 202,000 new jobs by 2025.
"The analysis showed something that we've seen in a number of these analyses conducted over the last 10 years, which is that you can affordably and significantly increase our use of renewable energy, and it can really help boost the economy and provide significant environmental benefits," said UCS analyst Jeff Deyette.
Several bills are being discussed in Congress this year that would set the first national renewable electricity standards, requiring utilities to derive a certain percentage of their energy from renewable sources like wind, solar and geothermal. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) is proposing 20 percent from renewable sources by 2021. Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Todd Platts (R-Pa.) and Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) want 25 percent renewables by 2025. (To put that in perspective, in 2007, renewables supplied 7 percent of the nation's energy.)
Legislation of this kind is likely to pass in the next several months, whether as a stand-alone bill, or as part of a comprehensive climate change bill. President Obama has already called for a goal of 25 percent from renewable sources by 2025.
While one would expect new jobs would be needed to build up the renewable energy sector to provide that amount of power, the UCS study found that the job gains would remain even after the ramp-up period. Renewables inherently require more labor than fossil-fuel-based power such as coal.
Many of the jobs in the renewables sector come from the construction, operation and maintenance of renewable energy facilities, as well as the manufacturing of components for those facilities.
"There are actually 8,000 individual parts that go into a single turbine," Deyette said, noting the steel comprising the towers, the turbine on the top of the tower – "and then you have a lot of nuts and bolts, literally nuts and bolts."
The jobs created to meet a national renewable electricity standard would also cause ripples of more job creation. Sectors such as transportation and financial services would see new work associated with the development of renewable energy projects. Even industries not related to energy would get a boost. Workers in the renewable energy field would spend money at restaurants and movie theaters, and consumers, who would save $95.5 billion by 2030 on their electric bills, would also have more to spend.
"The reason you get more jobs from increasing renewable energy is that manufacturing, installation and maintenance are the largest portion of where those jobs would be created. And those are all more labor-intensive than the counterpart of the fossil-fuel industry, where most of the expenditures are on the fuel itself – the extraction and transportation of that fuel. So, you get more jobs created per unit of electricity generated from the renewable energy industry than from fossil fuels."
Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia already have renewable electricity standards, and those states have already seen a bump in renewable energy jobs.
Many renewable energy manufacturing jobs are overseas in countries like Japan and Germany. However, since 2006, about 70 new manufacturing facilities have opened, expanded or been announced in the United States in the wind industry alone, largely because of state renewable electricity standards. Many of those new facilities are in states with aggressive policies supporting renewable energy like Iowa, California and Minnesota.
Speaking of the international companies that manufacture components for renewable energy equipment, Deyette says a renewable electricity standard "sends a signal to those international companies that there is a market here and that it is cheaper to manufactures those products here in the U.S."