The Green Collar Revolution

Barack Obama, faced with recession and high unemployment, saw the movement to green power as a job creator and announced his belief in green industries and job training as a significant way to fight job loss.

Solar Overtakes Fossil Fuels

“Over 3 million Americans are employed in the growing green-collar workforce, which is more than the number of people working in the fossil fuel industry.”

—Tammy Baldwin, U.S.  Senator from Wisconsin

The Bureau of Labor Statistics produced the latest green jobs report in March 2013, which estimated that “employment associated with the production of green goods and services”—full- and part-time jobs—exceeded 3.4 million in 2011. In comparison, in 2011, there were 2.59 million jobs that directly supported “the production of fossil fuel-based energy, derivative manufactured products and machinery.”

As society seeks to address the multitude of threats to our environment, businesses are rethinking their core business models to reflect the shift in preferences toward environment-friendly products. Moreover, entrepreneurs are hastening to develop new green products and services. Nowhere is this “greening” of American business more important than in the U.S. electricity sector. Indeed, our nation’s economy, and arguably humanity’s future, depends in no small part on its ability to develop a reliable, economical, and sustainable electric power industry.  Electric power industries worldwide face technology challenges far greater than any they have ever known. Topping the long list of energy-related challenges that nations face is climate change, which results primarily from the burning of the fossil fuels that make up 80 percent of the world’s energy supplies and four-fifths of America’s energy consumption. Almost 70 percent of electricity consumed in the United States in 2014 was generated using fossil fuels and 32% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, which cause climate change, originated from the nation’s electricity sector. To stem climate change while still meeting the growing demand for energy, nothing less than a fundamental transformation of current patterns of energy production, delivery, and use on a global scale will be required.

The demand for innovative solutions to address the climate change challenge has led the American economy to the cusp of a “green wave” in terms of job growth and economic opportunity. Millions of new green jobs will be created, ranging from renewable energy installers to sustainability analysts. Because many of the jobs are blue-collar in nature, they may provide pathways out of unemployment for low-skilled, low-income earners. Green-collar jobs promise to provide communities with the opportunity to both build the local economy and improve the health of the local environment. In a green economy, economic development and environmental quality go hand in hand.

There is no consensus in the literature on how to define green-collar jobs. A broad interpretation of green jobs includes all existing and new jobs that contribute to environmental quality. Most discussions of green-collar jobs do not refer to positions that require a college degree but to positions that typically involve training beyond high school. Many positions are similar to those held by skilled, blue-collar workers such as electricians, welders, and carpenters.

Renewable energy is growing rapidly as an alternative to fossil fuel usage. In 2013, the cost of solar dropped 15%. By 2015, solar prices had dropped as low as $.50 per watt and the downward trend continues.  The Solar Foundation’s Census 2014 found that the solar industry added workers at a rate nearly 20 times faster than the overall economy. Renewable energy is seen as a significant generator of green-collar jobs both in terms of manufacturing and in green-collar jobs. Communities can promote renewable energy development through conventional means such as offering tax incentives, credits, and other mechanisms to encourage renewable energy manufacturing in their own backyards. They can also develop creative financing mechanisms that incentivize homeowners and businesses to deploy renewable energy on site. Many countries, states, and even some cities are effectively mandating renewable energy development by passing renewable energy portfolio standards (RPS) requiring that a certain percent of energy purchased be derived from renewable sources.Worldwide, solar industries saw the second highest growth in number of jobs. Overall, renewable energy sources are growing rapidly, especially in developed countries.

A very strong predictor of green-collar job growth is local renewable energy policy. Those states with strong incentives, including New Jersey and California, have leapt to the lead in renewable energy deployment. Not surprisingly, they have also benefited from new green industry creation, especially in sales, servicing, and installation of renewable systems. Communities can enact policies that increase demand for residential, business, and government renewable energy projects.