A coalition of 29 state Governors are all calling on the federal government to mandate a national renewable energy standard. According to the coalition, this is the best and perhaps the only way to increase the role that wind power plays in the US’s energy mix. While growth has been very strong for US wind, wind’s contribution to overall electric generation is still under 2% of our total. And while the US still leads globally, Germany and especially China are coming on fast.
Global windpower capacity rose about 32 percent to 159,213 megawatts last year, according to the World Wind Energy Report 2009. U.S. capacity was the biggest with 35,159 megawatts, followed by China with 26,010 megawatts and Germany with 25,770. China will likely leap-frog the US in installed wind power in the next few years unless we match or surpass the very significant incentives China has put in place in recent years. Specifically, China in 2008 passed a stimulus package that allocated an astounding $586-billion to renewable energy projects. In 2009 a Chinese program offered a whopping 50% investment subsidies for solar power systems that were connected to their national grid.
Most states have passed some kind of renewable portfolio standard (RPS) to encourage electric generators and customers alike to move quickly towards the use of renewables. But a federal standard would replace all that with a national RPS though the fact that the south eastern states have limited onshore wind resources would have to be factored in some how. While it is unlikely that the US has the will to match these Chinese incentives – a federal RPS would at least standardize and nationalize what appears to be the will of most of the states.
But lets say we are successful and can get enough US wind power installed so that 5% or more of our electricity comes from renewables – essentially tripling our current installed base. Would such a transition result in an increase in the number of jobs, the same number of jobs, or net loss of jobs? I think it is fare to say the following – that to the extent that wind and other fuel-free renewable sources of energy replace fossil fuel based power sources that there will be a net loss of energy sector jobs. Why? Because many of the jobs associated with the refining and mining of fossil fuels would be increasing obsolete as demand for them declines. Indeed, if wind, hydro and solar really catch on and we approach not just 2% or 5% but 10% or 15% of our power from renewables, the loss of mining and refining jobs could be significant and would not be made up by the so called green jobs that Obama has been promising. The reason for this is that mega watt for mega watt renewable energy is just not as labor intensive as generating power fossil fuels. In the final analysis, renewable energy is simply more efficient than thermal energy – and while most of us should feel good about that (for example the near zero emissions from wind, hydro and solar), we may not feel good about simultaneously shedding high paying refining and mining jobs.
And the transition from fossil fuels to wind is happening at an astounding pass worldwide. This year alone the estimate from Bloomberg New Energy Finance projects a 9 percent increase in global installations of wind turbines in 2010, an addition of as much as 41 gigawatts of new generation capacity. 41 gigawatts is equivalent to 34 new nuclear power stations.
Once a significant proportion of our energy comes from wind, hydro, and solar we stand to lose a lot of mining and refining jobs in much the same way that we lost all the “dirt carters” last century when we transitioned from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles. In the old days a typical city horse produced between fifteen and thirty-five pounds of manure a day and about a quart of urine and it literally took an army of dirt carters to remove it each and every day. For example, in New York City alone thousands of loads of manure were gathered every day in special “manure-yards” where another army of men were employed to keep turning the manure so that it would decompose properly.
And while job leakage is one of the last thing this economy needs right now, there is one thing that is worse for our economy – continued reliance on fuels that are; a) finite, and, b) release toxins when they are burned.