The Challenge Facing Biden’s Green Jobs Agenda? Green Jobs

Up to 600 jobs will be created during the construction of the largest solar power plant in the U.S., the Samson Solar Energy Facility in northeast Texas. Its 1.3 gigawatts of capacity will surpass that of many nuclear reactors.

Running it is another story. The plant will create just 12 permanent and operations jobs once fully operational in roughly 2023, says its developer, Chicago-based Invenergy, on the project’s website.

President-elect Joe Biden sold his plan to cut the country’s power sector emissions to net zero by 2035 by promising to create millions of “good-paying, middle-class, union jobs”. But this plan faces obstacles. Compared to jobs in the fossil fuel power sector, jobs in solar and wind power employ a large share of workers in construction rather than in more permanent roles as plant operators, are unionized at lower rates, and don’t pay as well, according to an analysis of data from the U.S. Energy and Employment Report, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and interviews with energy experts.

There are important caveats to these big-picture takeaway. The power generation sector represents only one part of the energy industry, for example, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ median wage data relies on a small sample size of only a few thousand for the still-young wind and solar sectors, making the data less reliable than for the fossil fuel power sector.

Clean energy jobs also have plenty of benefits, such as working conditions that are on average less hazardous, steady job demand not subject to boom-and-bust cycles, and wages that nevertheless are higher than in the overall economy. Still, a big-picture analysis of drawbacks highlights the challenges Biden and other green jobs advocates will face.

When the sun and the wind do the work

In the U.S. today, coal and natural gas power plants together supply around 55 percent of all electricity, far more than wind and solar’s combined 20 percent share. President-elect Biden’s plan involves shifting nearly all of that natural gas and coal power to wind, solar and other zero-carbon sources. 

That could mean more workers building power plants but fewer workers running them: solar and wind farms are less labor-intensive than coal or natural gas plants.

Around five times as many coal mining and power plant workers are needed to create one megawatt-hour of electricity as wind farm operators, according to data from BW Research Partnership, a consultancy.

“It’s the construction of this energy sector transformation where most of the jobs are being created,” said Philip Jordan, a vice-president at BW Research and a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, in an interview.

As a result, the wind and solar power industries employ a far larger share of people in construction than their fossil fuel peers. As many as 62 percent of workers in the solar industry are in construction and 33 percent in wind, versus only 17 percent of natural gas workers and 11 percent of coal workers, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics and survey data in the 253-page U.S. Energy and Employment Report (USEER), produced by the National Association of State Energy Officials (NASEO), a non-profit that represents each state’s energy officials, and the Energy Futures Initiative (EFI), a nonprofit climate group. The report’s data collection and management was done by BW Research.

That the solar and wind sectors employ such large shares in construction is not without benefits. It means that a potential wind and solar jobs boom would create plenty of work for people without college degrees. That was the conclusion of an April 2019 report by the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, as well as a 2016 study by researchers at the University of California Berkeley. 

Still, such numbers don’t excite the fossil fuel industry workers from whom Biden would likely require at least some buy-in. 

Mark Johnson, president of the Tri-State Building Trades Union, represents an area of Ohio where several solar fields have been proposed, but he worries that they won’t create enough jobs to provide for people and their families who face losing work at the handful of coal-fired power plants in the region. 

“Just maintaining a coal-fired power plant takes hundreds of jobs,” said Johnson in an interview. “Drive past any solar farm and I doubt you’ll see a full parking lot outside it.”

A power sector pay cut

The average worker at a coal or natural gas plant, switching to some equivalent job at a wind or solar farm, might have to take a pay cut.

The median wage in the fossil fuel power generation segment of the economy — that is, those working at coal and natural gas power plants or the firms that run them — was $38.92 per hour in 2018, equivalent to around $81,000 annually, according to the most recent annual data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

That’s nearly 20 per cent more than the median wage in the wind power sector and around six per cent more than in the solar sector. The median wage in the wind power sector was only $32.79 in 2018, equivalent to around $68,200 annually.  

Wind and solar wages could, of course, catch up if demand grows. But they could also fall further. 

“Wages in solar and wind could increase if demand increased, at least initially,” said David Popp, an economist and professor at Syracuse University who wrote about the impact of fiscal policy on green jobs in a working paper in June 2020, in emailed comments. “But higher wages would also attract more workers to develop the skills to work in wind and solar, so the increase need not be permanent.”

While the median wages in the solar and wind sector are lower than in fossil fuel power sectors, they are still comfortably higher than the median wage throughout the economy, meaning that many joining the industry for the first time could well see pay increases.

Rhetoric versus reality on unions

Biden, a strong supporter of union jobs, faces another challenge in increasing the rates of union jobs in the solar and wind sectors. While jobs in the coal and natural gas power sectors are unionized at rates of 10{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} and 11{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} respectively, union representation within the solar and wind sectors is only 4{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} and 6{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1}, according to data in the USEER for 2020, using 2019 data. (An even higher share of jobs in the nuclear power sector, 12{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1}, are union jobs.) Across the national workforce, an average 6{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of jobs are unionized.

Biden supports legislation, such as the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would make it easier for workers to organize into unions. With control of the Senate and the House, it’s plausible Democrats could pass such legislation.

Even were such legislation to become law, however, it would take time for unionization rates to catch up.

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