solar panel worker

The best way to measure the usefulness of energy sources is not by the number of jobs they create, but by the benefits they provide. Getting the biggest gain for the least resources should always be the goal, meaning we should measure energy by its output, not the size of its payroll. Current green energy literature shows us why.

A recent Clean Jobs America report claims there are 3.3 million clean energy jobs nationwide. That number is nearly three times the 1.15 million jobs in the fossil fuel industry. It’s a big and impressive statistic, but it’s misleading for a couple of reasons.

First, unless clean energy jobs were providing at least triple the output of traditional sources, it wouldn’t make sense to say that having 3 million jobs is necessarily better than 1 million. Instead, it would be far better to show a high rate of return on green energy options — fewer jobs (and therefore, lower labor costs) required to make the same amount of energy.

But the Clean Jobs America report doesn’t show that, because clean energy doesn’t actually have a good rate of return. The report claims that renewable energy provides “roughly 18 percent of U.S. energy generation,” and then cites another source that claims renewable sources provide 19 percent of U.S. energy. But to reach these levels, both reports expand on the definitions of “renewable” and “clean.” Typically, when green energy proponents discuss clean or renewable energy, they are referring to wind and solar. But these reports also include biomass and hydro, and then further stretch the definition to include “renewables, complemented by nuclear.”

Nuclear is the obvious clean energy choice for anyone who is concerned about emissions from generating electricity. But nuclear sources are pilloried by much of the green movement. For example, the Sierra Club is “unequivocally opposed to nuclear energy” and the Green Party (U.S.) demands a “complete phase out of . . . nuclear power.” So, at best, it appears that adding nuclear industry job numbers to the Clean Jobs report is an opportunistic means of upping green job numbers. Other reports consider wind and solar — the two sources most often marketed as renewable – as providing a mere 3 percent of America’s total energy supply.

The 3.3 million jobs statistic is also misleading because most of the jobs being counted aren’t actually in clean energy production. They’re in a sector called “energy efficiency”. This sector includes the manufacturing of ENERGY STAR-labeled products, as well as “building design and contracting services that provide insulation, improve natural lighting, and reduce overall energy consumption across homes and businesses.”

The detailed breakdown shows that 70 percent (2.3 million) of the 3.3 million so-called clean jobs were distributed between air conditioning installation, recycling building materials, manufacturing and installing LED and other efficient lighting, and other similar activities. While these jobs are both helpful and beneficial, they don’t necessarily have any bearing on energy generation. An LED light may be more efficient than a halogen or incandescent bulb, but the electricity that powers it is still, 81% of the time, coming from the fossil fuel industry. This report compares 2.3 million energy efficiency jobs to 1.15 million jobs from fossil fuels – fuels that provide the overwhelming amount of energy used by homes and businesses.

Further confusion comes from the novel job classifications used in another publication cited by Clean Jobs America report. The publication, the U.S. Energy & Employment Report, defines construction employees who do all their work during a year on a windmill or solar plant as wind or solar employees. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, by contrast, counts these people as construction workers.

So coal and natural gas both employ most of the workers in the utility sector, but renewable energy numbers are effectively bolstered by an accounting trick. The new methodology is applied equally to all industries, but its unorthodox reclassification of workers distorts the picture and confuses readers.

By conventional BLS metrics, wind energy would have employed only 6,231 people in 2018. Solar would have employed only 3,295. But using the new measure allows clean energy advocates to report that wind employed 111,166 and solar another 242,343, along with an additional 93,000 who spent less than half of their time on solar jobs.

The massive growth in clean energy jobs described in the USEER report appear to show a thriving industry, offering hundreds of thousands of new jobs to applicants. What it shows, instead, is the logical outcome of a mandated and subsidized push to replace existing energy infrastructure with renewable energy infrastructure. Without those mandates and subsidies, it is reasonable to question whether most of those jobs would exist.

Most of the jobs listed in these clean energy reports have little or nothing to do with producing or generating electricity, and the ones that do are primarily involved in building the infrastructure or manufacturing the parts, not supplying the energy. A clear, honest look at which energy sources produce the most electricity shows the answer is fossil fuels, nuclear, and hydro – not wind and solar.

This article was previously published by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
Garrick Anderson is an environmental policy intern at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

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