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The nexus of clean energy and green jobs

By Marjorie Childress
New Mexico Independent

John McCain and Barack Obama agree that global warming is man-made, and both want to find a way to reverse its course. McCain emphasizes nuclear energy — which does not emit any global warming carbon dioxide — as the solution, advocating a substantial number of new nuclear plants by 2030.

John McCain and Barack Obama agree that global warming is man-made, and both want to find a way to reverse its course.

McCain emphasizes nuclear energy — which does not emit any global warming carbon dioxide — as the solution, advocating a substantial number of new nuclear plants by 2030.

Obama agrees that nuclear energy has its place in the solution, saying there is “no silver bullet” to the energy crisis and everything has to be considered. But he also points to the issue of nuclear waste and the cost as major problems with going that route. Instead, he emphasizes the need for an investment in a burgeoning renewable energy industry — the new energy economy — as central to weaning the American public off fossil fuels.

The debate over how to solve global warming dovetails nicely with fixing the economy. While neither candidate foresaw the near collapse of the American economy in the final months of the presidential campaign, both have spent a fair amount of time addressing the loss of good paying manufacturing jobs to overseas production.

One solution to job loss that both point to is the creation of new jobs from a large investment in alternative and renewable energy production here at home.

McCain makes the point that the nuclear energy plants at the heart of his energy plan will create 750,000 new jobs “from the cleanest of energy.” Obama emphasizes the expansion of a fledgling “green jobs” landscape, which is central to the new energy economy.

Obama’s green jobs

During his second debate with McCain, Obama spoke of the energy crisis as both a struggle and an opportunity, invoking the development of the computer industry:

… If we create a new energy economy, we can create five million new jobs, easily, here in the United States. It can be an engine that drives us into the future the same way the computer was the engine for economic growth over the last couple of decades.

And we can do it, but we’re going to have to make an investment. The same way the computer was originally invented by a bunch of government scientists who were trying to figure out, for defense purposes, how to communicate, we’ve got to understand that this is a national security issue, as well.

The investment needed to create those 5 million new jobs, Obama says, is $150 billion in the clean energy sector over the next decade. The money will come from a national cap and trade program implemented to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, similar to the regional cap and trade program that is about to be implemented for New Mexico and other western states.

Critics, though, contend that the 5 million jobs Obama says his administration will create through investments in renewable energy development and production are a stretch. Instead, they say, jobs will move from one region of the economy to another, because they’ll be linked to energy production that replaces a different source of energy, like coal.

But this view doesn’t recognize the expansive definition of the green jobs concept. Not only are green jobs defined as a direct outcome of industries that develop and produce renewable energy, such as solar, wind, or geothermal power, they’re also the outcome of a shift in how the American public lives as a result of the need to emit less CO2 into the atmosphere.

Just as they went digital over the past decade, so are Americans “going green”–with a byproduct being growth in industries that meet the needs of green living.

Green jobs are those jobs that exist now and will exist in the future that are part and parcel of industries contributing to a smaller human environmental footprint, particularly when it comes to global warming and carbon dioxide emissions. And a particularly unique aspect of green collar jobs is that the moniker can apply equally to both PhD’s and skilled union labor.

For instance, construction jobs related to retrofitting homes and commercial buildings to be more energy efficient are green because they lead to the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions from those buildings. Through the production of more energy efficient cars, American automobile makers may regain much of the market share they’ve lost to foreign competitors. Manufacturing of sustainable products, which includes how they are produced and transported, may grow as the American public becomes more aware of the need to live sustainably. Jobs derived from an expansion of domestic renewable production may replace the jobs associated with foreign oil production rather than traditional oil and gas domestic production. And a proliferation of green high-tech companies will require highly educated employees in such fields as physics and chemistry.

It’s a vision that more and more policy makers are buying into.

The green jobs concept has been percolating among Democratic legislators and a network of national advocacy organizations for a number of years, linking solutions to global warming with job creation, particularly for low-income communities.

The thinking is that one aspect of what makes a clean energy economy green is its ability to provide good paying, solid jobs for the American working class. And, that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to spur new green industries without also providing workforce development funding to ensure there are workers to fill new jobs.

These ideas got a major boost with the passage of the Green Jobs Act last December as part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. The Democratic sponsors in the House were Rep. Hilda Solis and Rep. John Tierney, and in the Senate were Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Hillary Clinton, who championed the concept of green jobs throughout 2007 during the Democratic presidential primary.

Stemming from advocacy work over a number of years by such national organizations as the Apollo Alliance, Center for American Progress, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Green For All, and the Workforce Alliance, the act authorizes $125 million for green jobs training, with 20 percent of that reserved for low-income populations, in what advocates describe as “green pathways out of poverty.”

McCain’s energy jobs

McCain touts job creation and makes the connection with an expanded domestic energy sector, but doesn’t emphasize the connection to green energy the way Obama does.

His energy plan does, however, state that the U.S. must be a “leader in a new international green economy.” The centerpiece of creating this leadership is an investment in “clean coal” technology, which he says will create new jobs right away through pilot projects, and later through the marketing of clean coal technology to countries like China that rely on coal.

He also promises to build 45 new nuclear power plants by 2030, with an ultimate goal of 100. McCain highlights nuclear energy as a “proven, zero-emission” energy source, and notes that while the United States hasn’t begun construction of a new plant in more than 30 years, China, Russia and India have plans to ramp up their use of nuclear energy.

Critics contend that nuclear energy is enormously expensive, and that it shouldn’t be pursued at all until a solution is found to the highly radioactive waste it produces.

McCain says that’s not a problem — the spent fuel can largely be reprocessed. But the problem with reprocessing is that it creates plutonium, which is used in nuclear weaponry.

In a world that has a serious problem with weapons proliferation, critics say, that’s the last thing we need.

Beyond nuclear energy and clean coal, McCain says increased domestic oil and gas production, plus an investment in renewable energy, are key to becoming energy independent.

And while he doesn’t champion “green jobs” to the extent that Obama does, he’s more than happy to promote the many jobs that an invigorated domestic energy industry that highlights clean energy would provide.

Talking about green jobs nationally, taking action in the states

While the concept of green jobs has become a prominent part of the policy discussion nationally, action at the state level to spur industries related to renewable energy and sustainable living is in full swing, in tandem with job training programs to ensure there’s a skilled workforce in place.

And New Mexico isn’t a Johnny-come-lately to the concept of green jobs. In fact, the state may be ahead of the curve.

The promotion of New Mexico as an ideal place to locate renewable energy companies is a natural given the landscape and the high-tech industry here, supported by our national labs. As is the idea of green jobs as a pathway to solid well-paid jobs in a state that has long struggled with poverty.

Since well before 2008, local and state leaders in New Mexico have been forging a path toward energy efficiency and conservation, as well as innovative programs to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Taking a carrot and stick approach, the state offers tax incentives for investment in renewable energy projects at the same time its mandated that utilities produce higher percentages of electricity from renewable energy over time, beginning at 15 percent by 2015. These efforts coincide with an ongoing effort to develop a diversified, high-tech economy.

As it turns out, there are a number of initiatives in New Mexico that seek to spur workforce development. Economic development professionals predict a shortage of qualified workers, which might begin to impact significantly the site selection decisions of big companies.

For this reason, New Mexico obtained a $5 million federal “Wired” grant, which stands for Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development, to create an integrated economic and educational system. The plan promotes the development of a green manufacturing cluster in tandem with an educational/jobs pipeline that reaches into the high schools and is highly integrated with local community colleges.

Many in the building trades industry echo the claims that there’s a looming shortage of skilled workers, mainly because the current baby boomer workforce is aging. An innovative collaborative between three building trades associations and their three respective unions, called the Mechanical Electrical and Sheetmetal Alliance, has created a program called “Trade Up” to attract young people as early as ninth grade to what they describe as some of the best paying, highly skilled jobs in the state.

The building trades are one of New Mexico’s job sectors that will see green job expansion, and present a prominent path to higher wage jobs for many within New Mexico’s lower-income population. Even better, workers are trained through apprenticeship programs that provide on the job training in conjunction with classroom instruction. The outcome is a journeyman certificate and possibly a two-years associate degree.

Finally, the Albuquerque City Council is taking steps to create an Albuquerque Green Job Corps that emphasizes job creation for low-income populations. Inspired by a green jobs corps created by the city of Oakland, Calif., the nonprofit organization New Mexico Youth Organized, which released a report about Albuquerque’s green industry potential last June, is working with councilors to create a workforce development plan that will focus on training and job placement in Albuquerque’s burgeoning “green tech” industry, with a special emphasis on low-income communities. And, it’s likely that New Mexico will see similar initiatives at the state level when the legislative session commences in 2009, with or without more investment in green jobs at the national level.

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