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Clean energy could get Americans back to work post-pandemic

If it gets a piece of the stimulus pie

Transforming America into a country that runs on clean energy is one way experts hope to alleviate the devastating economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. With unemployment soaring and oil prices in a free fall, it’s looking highly unlikely that the US will simply step back into “business as usual.” Even though the pandemic is still raging, policy experts, climate action advocates, and scientists have all started drawing up plans that could save Americans from both the ravages of climate change and the economic fallout of COVID-19.

“Right now is the ideal time to be investing in renewable energy that can produce millions of family-sustaining wage jobs across the United States,” says Mark Paul, a political economist at New College of Florida.

Paul is one of the co-authors of a $2 trillion “green stimulus” that aims to create millions of jobs by dramatically expanding renewable energy capacity and retooling the nation’s infrastructure for the transition away from fossil fuels. Smaller plans have also grown at state and local levels. A petition coming out of New York asks for $500 billion to help states with budget shortfalls and expand clean energy.

The basic idea is that federal spending on a cleaner future would put Americans back to work, shift the balance of power away from polluting industries with big lobbying budgets, and meet key deadlines for climate action that scientists say are necessary to limit the damage done by climate change.

Renewables like solar and wind create more jobs per unit of energy delivered than coal or natural gas, a 2010 study published in the journal Energy Policy found. While $1 million in stimulus spending on oil and natural gas generated roughly five jobs, the same amount would result in 13 to 14 jobs in wind and solar, a 2009 report found.

Those numbers were crunched as the policymakers tried to figure out how to rebound from a different economic crisis — the 2008 Great Recession. Paul says one lesson learned from the Great Recession is that it isn’t too early to start planning ahead. After all, the climate crisis is expected to take its own toll on the global economy. Weaning the planet off the fossil fuels that are heating it up could help nip that financial crisis in the bud.

“The biggest challenge for COVID now will be managing the return to work, but then having work to go back to that opens up real opportunities — and that’s what this clean energy investment would do,” says Daniel Kammen, a professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley and a co-author of the green stimulus proposal and the 2010 paper in Energy Policy.

The threats posed by climate change make the transition to renewables more urgent than ever. As technology advanced and the cost of making and installing solar panels has dropped, renewable energy became a bigger part of the US energy mix. The Obama-era stimulus package that included a $90 billion investment in clean energy also gave the industry a boost over the past decade.

Yet despite expanding rapidly since 2008, renewables still only made up 11 percent of US energy consumption in 2018. That’s not nearly enough if the US wants to meet the targets laid out in the Paris Agreement that scientists say are necessary to avoid catastrophic effects of climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels need to be cut nearly in half from 2010 levels by 2030, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“We are not moving fast enough on renewable energy and the stimulus is an amazing opportunity to move faster,” Leah Stokes, an assistant professor at UC Santa Barbara and author of the new book, Short Circuiting Policy: Interest Groups and the Battle Over Clean Energy and Climate Policy in the American States. If the US powers its electricity and transportation sectors entirely with renewables, that would slash its carbon emissions by more than half, Stokes proposes.

Jobs wouldn’t just come from building new solar and wind farms. To support the influx of energy from renewables, the nation’s energy grid would need to grow twice as large, she says. America’s grid was built to support fossil fuels; power is generated at centralized locations and then travels long distances over transmission lines to power peoples’ homes and businesses. Renewable energy generation, on the other hand, is distributed more widely. There’s also the issue of intermittency: the amount of energy coming into the grid from wind and solar farms across the US can vary with the weather. So an updated and expanded grid needs to be able to get excess renewable energy generated in one location to other places that need it.

Getting all of that done is a massive undertaking that would require a lot of boots on the ground. Paul argues that clean energy can offer a new career path for many of the millions of people who’ve lost their jobs recently. The distributed nature of renewables also means they have the potential to employ people locally across all 50 states, rather than tying jobs to regions with rich oil, gas, or coal deposits.

Trump Administration Imposes Tariffs On Imported Solar Panels Photo by Joe Raedle / Getty Images

The number of jobs in solar and wind are expected to grow rapidly through 2028, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Solar panel system installers and wind turbine technicians are the fastest growing occupations in the country. The number of people in each occupation was expected to climb by 63 percent and 57 percent respectively by 2028, but that was before the pandemic hit. Now, the industry will need some support from governments to keep that momentum going.

New York state, despite being the epicenter of the COVID-19 epidemic in the US, is still betting on renewables to help it recover from the pandemic and avert more crises caused by climate change. In April, it passed a measure to speed up the siting process for new renewable energy projects as part of its 2020-2021 budget, even as other budget items fell by the wayside because of the economic crunch caused by the virus.

“Keeping us on track [for climate targets] will be a driver of construction jobs. It will be an opportunity to help the broader state economy get back on track with what was already a fast growing sector,” says Alicia Barton, president and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. “Hopefully if we can think smartly about things the state can do and potentially see investments from the federal government, we have a good opportunity to seize a challenging moment and turn it into a moment of opportunity.”

While there’s opportunity, there are also significant roadblocks. States like New York, which already had ambitious plans to scale up renewable energy but was also hard hit by the pandemic, shed thousands of clean energy jobs since the pandemic started. Projects are languishing during stay-at-home orders. More than half of American solar workers were either laid off or faced cutbacks, according to an April survey by the Solar Energy Industries Association. Thirty-five thousand jobs and $35 billion in investments in wind energy are jeopardized by the COVID-19 pandemic, the American Wind Energy Association reports.

“It’s unfortunately safe to say that we are going to be headed into a pretty deep economic downturn, even when our economies slowly open up,” says Noah Kaufman, a researcher at Columbia University. “These are things that are going to be very bad for all industries including the renewable industry. Spending is going to be down; it’ll be harder to get financing.”

“The best thing that the government can do for the economy is work to rev the economy back up to full speed as quickly as possible through deficit spending,” Paul says. Skeptics of proposals like a Green New Deal have balked at the price tag of retooling the nation’s energy infrastructure. But the economic disaster following the pandemic has squashed much of the political aversion to deficit spending — the question now is how to spend that money.

The question of how to best spend deficit money will be hashed out by politicians, and that presents even more hurdles for continued clean energy growth. Renewable industries’ asks of the federal government have so far been pretty modest. They’ve pushed for an extension of tax credits that expire this year, which they could miss out on as projects are stalled. Republicans and fossil fuel lobbyists have sought to block even that, as the Trump administration has prioritized boosting coal, oil, and natural gas.

And while states, cities, and the private sector had stepped up to cut their greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, they’re now tightening purse strings — which could stymie renewable energy growth and other efforts to take action on climate change.

To top it all off, the $2 trillion green stimulus proposed by Paul and others patches together policy recommendations from Democratic candidates who’ve dropped from the presidential race — so it’s unlikely that the proposal will pick up enough steam at the federal level to be put in action while Republicans are in charge. A lot will ride on the outcome of November elections.

President Trump Signs Coronavirus Stimulus Bill In The Oval Office
Donald Trump speaks with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) during a bill signing ceremony for H.R. 748, the CARES Act in the Oval Office of the White House on March 27th, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Photo by Erin Schaff-Pool / Getty Images

If the plan did actually become reality, it would be more of an extended recovery plan instead of a quick injection of money. Paul and others who crafted the proposal write that their $2 trillion plan “focuses on the longer-term challenge of jumpstarting economic recovery and transitioning to a more sustainable economy.”

But in an economic emergency like this one, speed does need to play a role. Even with the long-term goal of decarbonization, a stimulus needs to quickly put money in the hands of people who’ll spend it, Kaufman explains. That ought to inform what kinds of energy and infrastructure projects should move forward as part of any kind of plan to boost the economy.

Building a high-speed renewable-energy rail line across the country, for example, could create jobs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation — but it could also get mired in permitting and legal issues for years. On the other hand, grants or subsidies for shovel-ready solar and wind projects and funding for energy-efficiency retrofits would get federal dollars to people much faster. More localized renewable energy projects are also quicker to get off the ground, in general, than new oil and gas infrastructure like pipelines that cross state borders and often get held up in court for years, Kammen at Berkeley says.

Beyond getting people back to work, clean energy spending solves other problems. It would curb air pollution that burdened certain communities with more preexisting health conditions and made them particularly vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. And by cutting out fossil fuels, the US avoids scenarios where the climate crisis could cost the US economy hundreds of billions of dollars each year by 2090. “It would be silly to design a stimulus package and not also try to have the spending lead to long term benefits. All else equal, you’d much rather build a bridge than have people dig ditches and then fill them in again,” Kaufman adds. “From that regard, I think, clean energy really has a leg up, certainly over dirty energy.”

The COVID-19 crisis can be looked at as a canary in the coal mine, says Eric Orts, professor at Wharton and director of the business school’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership. “One thing we can do is learn from this so that with respect to climate change we don’t do the same thing that we’ve just done with respect to the coronavirus, which is fail to listen to the scientists, fail to change, fail to get ready.”

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