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It's All in the Count: The Vexing but Critical Challenge of Green Jobs Accounting

Getting an accurate accounting of clean-tech jobs in the U.S. is nearly impossible but it's not for a lack of trying. There have been dozens of projects at the national, state, and metro level designed to track and quantify clean-tech jobs, and to some extent, these attempts have done a decent job.

But for all these efforts, the reality is that the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS), the standard used by federal statistical agencies in classifying business establishments and tracking jobs, does not account very well for green industries and their myriad distinctions. The NAICS, for instance, currently lumps things like solar, wind, and tidal into one “Other Electric Power Generation” category and has no categories for hybrid electric vehicles, green buildings, recycling, and many other key sectors. Not exactly the best way to track the emerging industries of the future.

Past efforts to provide a more accurate accounting of clean-energy jobs include The Pew Charitable Trusts’ The Clean Energy Economy report and IHS Global Insight’s Current and Potential Green Jobs in the U.S. Economy report prepared for the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Both of these reports had very similar results, reporting a total of more than 750,000 green/clean-energy jobs in the U.S. in 2007 and 2006, respectively. But these reports, for all their positive contributions, were unable to do a completely accurate accounting because so much of the required underlying data just wasn’t available yet.

So is there anything more promising on the horizon?

Later this year, The Brookings Institution and Battelle will be releasing a new report that picks up where Pew and IHS left off. They plan to release data on “clean jobs” in more than 100 metropolitan areas, including a trend analysis for the period between 2003 and 2010. And in the spring of 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) plans to release its first national survey of green jobs.

Most important, the BLS is working diligently to overhaul the NAICS codes to include and cover clean-tech jobs and sectors. The BLS currently defines green jobs in five distinct areas: 1) energy from renewable sources, 2) energy efficiency, 3) pollution reduction and removal, greenhouse gas reduction, and recycling and reuse, 4) natural resource conservation, and 5) environmental compliance, education and training, and public awareness.

In some ways this hard-to-define, Wild West environment reminds me of the Internet back in the early 1990s. I attended a number of World Wide Web consortium meetings at a time when programmers, academics, and others convened to hash out the underpinning language of the web. These agreements enabled the Internet of today, with its open protocols, shared language, and agreed-upon standards.

We need similar agreements today on what constitutes a green or clean economy, and need to make sure we are creating the right NAICS codes to track the entire clean-tech jobs value chain. Admittedly, the analogy with the web only goes so far, but I believe that agreed-upon, broadly-accepted accounting methods for clean-tech jobs are critical in enabling the growth of the broader clean-energy economy.

One of the big areas of contention revolves around just want constitutes a clean, green job? Do you include nuclear power and waste-to-energy, or not? How far down the value chain do you go? Do you include users of clean technologies, or just producers? What about the thousands of people working on sustainability and energy efficiency in heavy manufacturing, retail, and scores of other non-clean-tech industries? These thorny issues will need to be debated and resolved, and the broader clean-tech community should chime in now and offer advice to the BLS and others who are presently laying the critical groundwork.

Clean Edge, which has been tracking the clean-tech sector for the past decade, uses green jobs and clean-tech sector taxonomies for our stock indices, our Clean Tech Job Trends report, in our U.S. Clean Energy Leadership Index, and other advisory work. Below is our high-level overview of the clean-tech landscape.

Energy

  • Renewable Energy
    • Biomass/Biofuels
    • Geothermal
    • Marine
    • Solar PV
    • Solar Thermal
    • Small-Scale Hydro
    • Wind
  • Smart Grid Infrastructure, Devices, and Networks
    • Advanced Transmission and Distribution
    • Grid Networking
    • Smart Appliances
    • Smart Meters and Grid Monitoring
  • Energy Conservation and Efficiency        
    • Building Automation
    • Combined Heat and Power
    • Demand Management
    • Efficient HVAC
    • Efficient Lighting
    • Green Building Design and Architecture
  • Energy Storage (Stationary)
    • Advanced Batteries
    • Capacitors
    • Compressed Air
    • Flywheels
    • Fuel Cells
    • Thermal Storage

Transportation

  • Automobile Electrification
    • All-Electric (EVs)
    • Charging Infrastructure
    • Energy Storage (Transportation)
    • Hybrid-Electric (HEV)
    • Plug-In Hybrids (PHEVs)
    • Vehicle-to-Grid
  • Electric Rail
    • High-Speed Rail
    • Intra-city Rail
  • Efficient Shipping and Aviation                 

Water

  • Desalination
  • Smart Irrigation
  • UV and Reverse-Osmosis Filtration
  • Water Metering, Recovery, and Capture

Materials

  • Biomaterials
  • Carbon Capture/Sequestration
  • Green Building Materials
  • Green Chemistry
  • Nanotech
  • Natural Resources/Restoration
  • Recycling

In the next three to five years, the clean-tech industry should finally have the tools in place to accurately account for clean-tech jobs growth via commonly accepted classification codes. Until then, we’ll have to look at some of the work being done by green-jobs tracking pioneers at Pew, Brookings, Battelle, BLS, state governments, and elsewhere. But from my vantage point, considering both political and economic needs, the day of defined and clearly understood green NAICS codes can’t arrive too soon.

Ron Pernick is cofounder and managing director of Clean Edge and coauthor of The Clean Tech Revolution. 

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