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Green Jobs--Not Just for Blue States

The Climate Bill is dead. Comprehensive action on energy and climate change issues is not likely to come from the federal government any time soon. One of the oft-repeated opposition mantras is that times are too tough to think about climate action – and the costs that curbing emissions might impose would heavily impact those who can afford additional costs the least.

But in fact, it is exactly because of the economic landscape and the massive shedding of jobs in historically significant sectors that makes now the ideal time to make strategic public investments in our shared clean energy future.  Without leadership from the feds, states are taking matters into their own hands.

And it’s not just the usual suspects that are or can make progress in clean energy development.

Like many parts of the US, the Great Recession has not spared my state of Kentucky.  The state has lost 101,000 jobs since the recession began—40,000 in the manufacturing sector and nearly 19,000 in construction. Just since December 2007, the state has lost 16% of its manufacturing jobs and 23% of its construction employment.  The loss of these jobs has contributed to keeping Kentucky at or above 10% unemployment for much of the last two years.    

This impact is especially devastating for Kentucky’s working families, who have relied heavily on factory and construction work to provide decent, family-sustaining incomes. Even as the economy recovers, the viability of these sectors is questionable—the housing market is likely to take a long time to unravel from the bubble of the last decade, and when manufacturing jobs do rebound many fear they will do so outside Kentucky.

Yet it is exactly the decline of manufacturing and construction opportunities that presents a real opening for the emerging clean energy sector. Research from the Renewable Energy Policy Project indicates that between 70 and 80% of new jobs in wind and solar will be in the manufacturing sector.  Similar studies show that retrofitting existing buildings, as opposed to building new structures, can create 8 to 17% more jobs by ‘fixing it first’.  This bodes well for making green jobs a reality in Kentucky. 

In fact, even without taking significant state action to embrace a clean energy, Kentucky has enjoyed a jobs growth rate of 10% between 1998 and 2007 in the clean energy sector according to a study by Pew Charitable Trusts, while the overall jobs growth rate struggled at a mere 3.6% during the same period.

States have taken the leadership over a period of years to transition to clean energy opportunities and capture the jobs that go with it, including leaders like California, Massachusetts and Oregon.  In fact, CleanEdge just released the first U.S. Clean Energy Leadership Index to rank states’ leadership in supporting the development of the clean energy sector and grow jobs.

So far this list – and others like it – is dominated by the usual suspect of progressive states, but there are stories worth telling in places you might not expect. 

Ohio has made significant progress in developing a renewable energy industry – especially solar—after passing a alternative energy resource in 2008.  AEP Ohio has committed to both wind and solar generation projects located within the state.  In addition to passing an RPS in 2009, Pennsylvania has undertaken a study of the potential for green job development in the state and begun to analyze what supports would be necessary to strengthen the clean energy economy. 

Tennessee, while lacking the overarching legislation required to really boost statewide growth, has also studied similar issues in a report, as well as drawn on the success of pilot programs put forward by the state’s biggest utility the Tennessee Valley Authority.  Indeed TVA’s pilot programs, including the feed-in tariff-style Generation Partners and Renewable Standard Offer programs, have proven so popular that long-term options have to be re-evaluated to ensure commitments can still be met.

Serious momentum is building across the purple states.  Lessons have been learned: states that are in a position to offer clear market and regulatory signals are snapping up project developments.  The clean energy economy holds promise across the board—but policy must set the direction.  States like Kentucky need to take the plunge and pass meaningful and comprehensive clean energy policies that will spur real investment in the sector to solidify their places in the new economy.

Details on how Kentucky can harness its clean energy potential have been fuzzy. To help shed light on Kentucky’s road to a clean energy future, the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED) released Building Clean Energy Careers in Kentucky; the report highlights the potential of the clean energy economy in Kentucky, assesses the role of workforce development in capitalizing on such potential, and proposes policy changes that will promote long-term, quality employment opportunities for all Kentucky’s workers.

But to make the most of these opportunities, the workforce training system must provide the kinds of training needed for growing sectors; create career pathways for workers; create access to that training and the resulting jobs for low-income workers and communities; and ensure that the jobs created are good quality, family-supporting jobs.

Institutionalizing such efforts requires substantive policy actions.  Those policies should include an increasing portfolio standard for renewable energy generation and energy efficiency savings, as well as financing elements that spur investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy among energy developers, businesses, institutions and homeowners. 

By aligning workforce development and training efforts with the needs of clean energy employers, by reducing hurdles to participation in training and education efforts for all Kentuckians and by demonstrating a policy commitment to pursuing clean energy sources Kentucky can begin to harness the employment opportunities inherent in the clean energy sector in earnest. 

The failure of federal climate and energy action is a disappointment. But many states are taking decisive action anyway towards preparing their economic bases and workforce to capitalize on the opportunities presented by a transition to a clean energy economy. States like Kentucky are poised to benefit by getting in the game. If they do, the momentum building in recent years will continue even as we wait for federal action to take it to the next level.

Kristin Tracz is a Research & Policy Associate at the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED).

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