What Exactly is a “Green” Job? (Updated)

September 15th, 2011 at 11:43 am David Frum | 45 Comments |

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Here’s a skill-testing hypothetical for you environmentalists out there.

Some future US government decides to impose a tax on oil to maintain the price above $125 a barrel.

Responding to this price signal, more Americans tell their real estate agents they want housing from which they can walk to work.

Responding to this market signal, more real estate developers build mixed-use residential-office-shopping developments.

These foot commuters now have more time and cash to pause on the way home from work to share a cappucino with friends.

To serve the extra customers, local cafes hire additional waitstaff.

Question: do the new service hires count as “green jobs”?

Here’s why my hypothetical question about green jobs is important:

When the Obama administration talks “green jobs,” it joins two ideas that really don’t belong together at all. It is the forced juncture of these ideas that led to the Solyndra debacle.

Idea 1: We have to move away from fossil fuels, especially oil.

Idea 2: The move away from fossil fuels can generate lots of high-paying manufacturing jobs here in the United States.

Familiarity can add plausibility to even the most unconvincing claims, and so it is with the green jobs story. There is no reason whatsoever to believe Idea 2, and overwhelming reason to disbelieve it.

The extraction of energy from oil and coal is almost the paradigmatic industrial activity.

Oil and coal are also almost inescapably domestic industries: coal of course is mined in the US, while oil is refined here. Oil refineries employ 65,000 Americans; the larger industry of transforming oil into gasoline, moving the gasoline, and fueling the gasoline into cars employs some 900,000 Americans. A new refinery employs about 17,000 people. Compare that to the 1,100 combined total – blue collar and white collar – of the entire Solyndra company.

Coal and oil jobs are inherently difficult to off-shore. Manufacturing wind turbines and even solar panels: very different story. They are already being manufactured in China. And to the extent that those manufacturing industries do remain in the US, it will be because they can be organized in ways that rely much more on robot devices than human labor.

The creation of solar panels typically involves cutting crystalline silicon into tiny disks less than a centimeter thick. These thin, wafer-like disks are then carefully polished and treated to repair and gloss any damage from the slicing process. After polishing, dopants (materials added to alter an electrical charge in a semiconductor or photovoltaic solar cell) and metal conductors are spread across each disk. The conductors are aligned in a thin, grid-like matrix on the top of the solar panel, and are spread in a flat, thin sheet on the side facing the earth.

It’s clearly true that a transition from oil and coal to new energy sources will generate new employment. But the idea that the employment will take the form of high-wage industrial employment for non-college-graduates is an illusion driven by the coalition imperatives of the Democratic party – not industrial reality.

- MORE TO COME –

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45 Comments so far ↓

  • Primrose

    I agree that taxes on this gas and oil would be good but when a major political party takes the slogan drill baby drill, it isn’t likely to happen.

    • humanoid.panda

      Exactly. In a perfect world, gas tax would be a no-brainer, but there is a sub-zero possibility of that happening in our fallen one. What I would like to ask Frum is what he would do to develop alternative energy sources when both the gas tax and cap and trad are both politically toxic? After all is said and done, direct investment and subsidies might be the least worst politically feasible option.

  • sinz54

    Look, environmentalists and the Obama Administration believe that the U.S. must convert to a green economy due to global warming. But they know they can’t sell that, especially in tough economic times.

    So they invented this total LIE about “millions of green jobs” to try to sell the conversion to “green” as a jobs program to provide fast employment to the unemployed. Not only didn’t it do that, but it didn’t hire the unemployed. Solyndra, like any other high-tech company, will hire folks who already have good resumes. The long-term unemployed will be less likely to be hired there or anywhere else.

    To date, the loan guarantee program has disbursed $20 billion and generated just 3,500 jobs, which works out to about $570,000 per job.

    Obama’s efforts to create green jobs are lagging behind expectations at a time of persistently high unemployment. Many economists say that because alternative-­energy projects are so expensive and slow to ramp up, they are not the most efficient way to stimulate the economy.

    “There are good reasons to create green jobs, but they have more to do with green than with jobs,” Princeton University economics professor and former Federal Reserve vice chairman Alan Blinder has said.

    http://tinyurl.com/3cvhpel

    In sum, you’ll support “green jobs” only if you’re committed to going green as a top priority. If you’re not, then there are much faster ways to generate lots more jobs.

    • humanoid.panda

      There are of course other good reasons to support “green jobs”: to avoid a repeat of the oil shock of 2009 and to make sure the US is the world leader in alternative energy (a no-brainer for economic nationalist like yourself, no?) are two that easily come to mind.

    • icfantv

      do you have any idea how much it costs both in (monetary and environmental effect) to harvest coal and oil, process it, and get it to where it needs to go?

      and do i even need to mention the political stability aspect (of other countries)?

  • Houndentenor

    LOL. As the Chinese and Indians drive more cars and consume more petroleum, the idea that we would have to add a tax to keep oil over $125 a barrel is hilarious.

    • cranky_engineer

      Your absolutely right about the chinese and Indians. They are also building windmills and a huge number of solar panels sold here in the United States. The Chinese have displaced the US as the largest producer of wind power. Of course we can continue with our head in in the sand or wherever and let them continue to erode whatever manufacturing base we may have left.

      Why worry about the definition lets get on with the task of developing and implementing alternate energy sources and conservation tactics. Then maybe we can stop buying oil from a bunch of countries that basically hate us.

    • Banty

      “LOL. As the Chinese and Indians drive more cars and consume more petroleum, the idea that we would have to add a tax to keep oil over $125 a barrel is hilarious.”

      Actually, this is exactly what will cause us to conserve petroleum without a gas tax.

      But of course people will scream drill baby drill thinking that will bring back the good old days.

  • zephae

    “Responding to this price signal, more Americans tell their real estate agents they want housing from which they can walk to work.”

    Or ride public transportation. That’s also a suitable substitute, but the general effect would be pretty similar: people living in denser areas with residential and commercial living together.

    “Idea 2: The move away from fossil fuels can generate lots of high-paying manufacturing jobs here in the United States.”

    It probably could if we had the kind of manufacturing facilities and training programs that would need a accompany that kind of transition. However, a lot of the facilities are now overseas and the training process entails significant costs. In addition, the general appeal towards these new types of jobs is not strictly based on the price of oil, but rather on the price of carbon. As with all pollution, the market doesn’t really set a value for it, so the government sets up a tax/regulation scheme in the public interest that creates a market cost, which gets passed on to industry and then their customers. In industries, this creates demand for new technologies to mitigate or eliminate these costs, while on the consumer end, the demand for efficiency products goes up. Since the administration has so far been unable to do anything about the taxation/regulation of carbon, most of the impetus for this demand has not materialized.

  • Frumplestiltskin

    “Some future US government decides to impose a tax on oil to maintain the price above $125 a barrel.”

    I don’t know why David harps on this as it is the worst idea there is. If you tell the Arabs that you will tax oil if it doesn’t sell for $125 a barrel, why would they sell it to us for less?
    A tax at the pump is the answer. All producers face the same competitive situation. David’s idea is just a windfall for oil companies locking in oil at above $125 a barrel.

    “Idea 2: The move away from fossil fuels can generate lots of high-paying manufacturing jobs here in the United States.” I live in Mexico near La Ventosa, a 500 million dollar windmill farm that has generated a lot of high paying (for Mexico) jobs. I live in a very rural area of Mexico, since it was built I have seen both a Walmart and Sorrianas open, a Burger King, a multiplex modern cinema (these are the places I go) as well as a host of other chain outfits.

    This idea that one failure invalidates an entire idea is just idiotic. I have seen the results of an oil producing country investing in green jobs and have seen it revitalize (or should I say vitalize) what was once one of the poor areas in Mexico raising the standard of living for everyone. Until David can tell me how this experience here is somehow invalid, then he is blowing smoke out of his ass.

    • balconesfault

      I don’t know why David harps on this as it is the worst idea there is. If you tell the Arabs that you will tax oil if it doesn’t sell for $125 a barrel, why would they sell it to us for less?

      Because they’re selling it into a global marketplace. To the extent that the US had any influence on the price, it would likely drop globally in response to a decreased demand in America. Which would be interesting, because the more the price dropped, the greater the tax revenues.

      This idea that one failure invalidates an entire idea is just idiotic

      Big agreement. That’s akin to deciding that the US will never again allow offshore drilling because of the BP disaster, instead of just putting a temporary moratorium in place as Obama did.

  • louis

    David–the idea of “green jobs” depends on an international consensus that;

    a) climate change is real, and bad;
    b) governments should coordinate action in order to spread risk/cost equitably

    A “green” job would be one that profits from new technologies developed in a new carbon-capped marketplace. Given the U.S.’s size, its global dominance, and its high carbon use, strict regulation here would allow to country to act as a giant test market for what will eventually be a global market for green energy production and energy-reducing devices. Now, maybe everyone would adapt using already existing technology, but I suspect that people have too much invested in their current way of life to give that up for apartment living.

    If Obama had chosen to focus on energy instead of health care, I think he could passed a cap-and-trade bill, and sharp limits on carbon emissions would have made more green jobs come about. In the absence of the cap-and-trade bill, though, green jobs are having to rely mostly on future expectations of high energy costs and do-gooder universities and businesses.

    In a parallel example, imagine if forward-thinking legislators from the urban northeast and midwest had managed to kill off the interstate highway act and subsidies for suburbia. Absent government support, someone building shopping malls may have looked pretty foolish.

    • balconesfault

      If Obama had chosen to focus on energy instead of health care, I think he could passed a cap-and-trade bill,

      Really? I don’t, unfortunately. With at least 38 GOP Senators dead set against passing the House Cap and Trade bill, and with a small handful of coal and oil state Dems (Landrieu, Rockefeller, etc) ready to join them, as long as the Senate could be bound up by filibuster it wasn’t going to happen.

      The only way to get Cap and Trade is to have 65 Democratic Senators, I fear.

      • sdspringy

        The only way to pass Cap & Trade is to have a Democrat monarchy, said another way a Castro style government

  • Graychin

    No, those are not the “green jobs” to which environmentalists refer, although in a broad sense they might be considered such. The question seems pointless and argumentative.

    When we do move away from fossil fuels, as we must, where will we get our energy? From renewable sources: wind, solar, biofuels…

    Therefore, why do you say that there is no reason whatsoever to believe that “the move away from fossil fuels can generate lots of high-paying manufacturing jobs here in the United States?

    I eagerly await the “more to come.” The statement seems self-evident.

  • dugfromthearth

    If a future government decides to cut taxes on the rich and a rich person who saves $10,000 in taxes spends $5 on getting an additional latte – does the job of the barrista count as a trickle-down job from the tax cut?

  • MaxFischer

    Familiarity can add plausibility to even the most unconvincing claims, and so it is with the green jobs story. There is no reason whatsoever to believe Idea 2, and overwhelming reason to disbelieve it.?

    Bear in mind that “green jobs” encompasses more than manufacturing (and not the type in the belabored example provided above). Just as there is more to the oil industry than extracting it, many opportunities exist for jobs in green technology. Of course solar panels, etc, can be manufactured and imported from China. But there is no reason that government cannot play a hand – tax credits, incentives, etc – to generate and maintain that manufacturing in the US. The Right (with help from Oil/Energy) needs to stop the foot-dragging on this issue.

    • balconesfault

      While I’d like to see a healthy domestic solar panel industry – the fact is that the Chinese are fully committed to whatever state subsidies it will take to keep PV manufacturing there. And since photovoltaics are pretty cheap to ship, it’s going to be hard to compete with that in the short term.

      What the Federal Government should do is take advantage of the Chinese largesse right now, and pump billions into installation of PV on every south facing rooftop in America. Instead of fighting the Chinese for the PV market, instead pump money into the less sexy microinverters and transformers and capacitor storage technology needed to integrate all these new solar installations into the grid. We’d create tons of immediate jobs in installation, and we’d start to hack gigawatts off our national fossil fuel powered energy needs in a very short time.

      While we’re at it, have FERC set a price floor on natural gas sales in America, levy a special tax on the windfalls to natural gas producers, and dedicate that money to subsidizing the construction of natural gas peaking plants for every utility in America. When we’ve built enough peaking plants, then the tax revenues go to subsidizing electric vehicles.

      Nat gas producers should accept the tax since it will be dedicated to increasing demand for their product, and the peaking plants will be available to suppliment the solar generation capacity, and the combination of generation will fuel a fleet of electric vehicles that will reduce oil demand.

      What happens when the Chinese want to raise PV prices? That’s the thing … it’s not that damned expensive to set up new lines here to compete if they finally quit their predatory pricing. Not only that, but another generation of PV cells with higher efficiency is just around the corner, and we could hold our PV manufacturing investment dollars off until they’re ready to start on the new technology.

    • cranky_engineer

      As a card carrying member of the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) I need to respond. There is a lot going on in the alternative energy world. Solar is slowly gaining traction. I can take you to a half dozen homes here in my middle class neighborhood in cloudy Seattle with solar installations.

      The chinese are already building lots of the solar panels used in the industry. In part I think we have exported pollution. Semiconductor fabrication uses lots of nasty chemicals. I for one wouldn’t want a semiconductor plant anywhere near my water supply.

      With respect to a healthy solar panel industry. There are several companies in this country we need the right tax incentives to encourage more. To bad we can’t take the oil company depletion allowance and give it to the solar industry.

      It should be noted that a Spanish company is starting to invest heavily in large concentrating solar installations in the US. The huge advantage to concentrating solar is that the plant can generate power after the sun goes down.

      However there is much that could and should be done to more effectively use solar and wind on a much larger scale. Things such as the power grid improvements. Improvements to the efficiency of the wind turbines used at Wind Farms. This requires lots of engineers and construction folks as well. The latest Solar Today from the ASES has the United States a pathetic 5th after a bunch of much smaller countries for Photo Voltaic Installations.

      The NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) in Golden Colorado has developed lots of technologies that could be exploited. I suspect that we will drag our political toes around in the sand and let them go to waste or give them to some other country to develop.

      • balconesfault

        The huge advantage to concentrating solar is that the plant can generate power after the sun goes down.

        To help stave off the inevitable questions … this is because once you have the infrastructure for steam generated power – concentrated solar works by just using the sun to boil water, instead of combustion processes – you can set up a dual train with a fossil fuel burner to keep the turbines spinning when the sun goes down.

        Things such as the power grid improvements.

        Already taking place – Texas started the process 5+ years ago and big new transmission systems to bring power from the turbines out in West Texas back to I-35 and east load centers will be operable in a year or so. Similar efforts are taking place after slower starts in other parts of the country.

        Improvements to the efficiency of the wind turbines used at Wind Farms.

        Already taking place. A few years ago the industry standardized around 1.6MW machines … the next generation of wind farms will be using 2.2-2.7 MW machines onshore, and bigger (up to 4.5 MW) offshore. They’re also developing the technologies to take better advantage of lower wind conditions, and on reducing noise output which would allow more turbines in populated rural areas.

        • sdspringy

          Most turbine installed even today are the 1.5 MW units, easier to install and maintain.

          And wind farms are productive only at a rate of 38%, meaning that they only produce their rated power 38% of the time. And without generous government subsidies they are not fiscally productive at all. The tax payer subsidy is a must IF you want wind to work, and no matter how technically advance the turbine gets it relies on the wind which isn’t that reliable.
          I know everybody thinks wind is the answer but if you need power because of expansion wind will require a double build, ie, an expensive tax payer subsidies wind farm and some combustion turbine to be there when the wind doesn’t blow 52% of the time. The turbine must be the size necessary to carry the entire load. So for the cost of expansion, you pay three times, wind farm, tax subsidy, combustion turbine. Not real smart.

        • cranky_engineer

          Modern concentrating solar stores some portion of the heat and continues to use it to make steam after the sun goes down. Some sort of peaking power source might be required in some of the installations.

          Improvements to the transmission system have to include conversion to a “smart grid” to allow the power sources to be utilized across very large areas along with larger overall capability. The current grid has some of those features but it could be significantly improved. One example of where this would help. The Northwest had a very wet late winter. This resulted in the wind farms being shut down in order to use excess hydro capability.

          Finally the current generation of wind turbines are on the order of 50% efficient. Improvements to blade design and the mechanical transmissions inside could yield significant improvements. There is some research going on in Japan that indicates a 50% increase over current designs is possible. I’m a little suspect about the scalability of these lab projects.

  • ShaneTaylor

    With a carbon tax, policymakers needn’t divine what the future energy sources will be. And given that fossil fuels have been an incredible source of cheaper energy, which is why we became so dependent upon them in the first place, perhaps we should not assume that innovation in “green” technology will yield a complete and instantaneous replacement. A carbon tax could spur such innovation, but it would also encourage conservation. In other words, a carbon tax would be a more robust approach to a convoluted challenge.

  • Carney

    We ALREADY have a high “tax” on oil – it’s the artificially high price of oil caused by the artificial scarcity created by OPEC’s deliberately low production levels.

    The way to escape from this is not to undergo wrenching revolutionary change in our patterns and habits of living, working, and travel (OPEC can easily respond to reduced oil use by further cutting production to spike up the price) but simply to ensure that cars from now on are able to use liquid fuels derived from non-oil sources, thus making drivers immune to oil price hikes rather than continue to be a helpless captive market.

    http://www.openfuelstandard.org/2011/05/welcome.html

    • SF_Bubble

      How might such a transformation come about? Would this be voluntary on the part of auto manufacturers? Or would it need to be mandated by governments?

    • Cyberax

      OPEC doesn’t have a lot of spare capacity. Maybe they can get 10-15% additional production for now.

      In a few years they won’t have any spare capacity _at_ _all_ (peak oil is just about now). Shifting some industries from oil to natural gas (which has not yet peaked) will give a little more oil for transportation. But don’t expect $2 per gallon ever again.

    • LauraNo

      ‘Wrenching”? Europe managed to change their behavior 15+ years ago and I don’t remember anything ‘wrenching’ about it. Tax something more and people will CHOOSE to change their behavior. Nothing wrenching about it. Except that, for some, any change is ‘wrenching’.

  • passionlessDrone

    Hello friends –

    The move away from fossil fuels can generate lots of high-paying manufacturing jobs here in the United States.

    Why do they have to be manufacturing jobs?

    What about construction jobs to install solar panels? What about research positions to figure out how to get more than 21% return from a solar panel? What about jobs to improve the power grid, or map the appropriate areas for tidal power? Let the Chinese make the solar panels, we’ve pretty much already given up on competing with them in that area already.

    The idea that one defaulted load to a solar company is a ‘debacle’ is a total joke. We spend that much every twelve hours or so in Iraq, and our dependence on oil is why we are there.

    There is no reason whatsoever to believe Idea 2, and overwhelming reason to disbelieve it

    That is because you’ve used a terrible analogy and we’ve been doing it wrong. A Manhatten project on energy is something that would create a ton of jobs, result in long term benefits, and can only realistically be crafted by an organization like the government.

    Terrible post. I expect better.

    - pD

  • passionlessDrone

    But the idea that the employment will take the form of high-wage industrial employment for non-college-graduates is an illusion driven by the coalition imperatives of the Democratic party – not industrial reality

    Who is advocating ‘non-college-graduates’ getting ‘high-wage industrial employment’ exactly? Can Mr. Frum, or anyone, provide any evidence that this narrative is being pushed anywhere but here? If there is no such evidence of this, the entire thrust of this article is revealed as a facade, and I’d say you might want to reconsider accusing people of pushing illusions with such a cavalier attitude.

    - pD

    • balconesfault

      Who is advocating ‘non-college-graduates’ getting ‘high-wage industrial employment’ exactly?

      Contextually, I think you have to consider that many in the GOP think that the way to solve unemployment in America is to eliminate the minimum wage.

      In such an environment, perhaps someone earning $9.50 an hour … enough to get above the poverty line for a family of 4 if they work 40 hrs/week, 52 weeks/year … is considered “high wage”?

  • Tyler

    The additional waitstaff at Starbucks may be a stretch, but you exclude the massive number of jobs — larger than that offered through manufacturing — related to the design, installation and management of distributed renewable energy systems atop rooftops, not to mention those who work in the residential, commercial and industrial energy retrofit industry. These are well-paying jobs that don’t necessarily require a college degree, but are akin to the welders and other non-engineer, non-MBA tradesfolk who work in the fossil-fuel sector. I would gather a coal miner who never graduated from high school would rather install residential furnaces and solar panels that mine coal.

    As, the more distributed nature of renewable energy and energy efficiency makes for more equitable distribution of employment. Instead of hundreds or thousands of people are leaving their families to go work in the mine, offshore, or in the oil sands, they can work in their communities.

    I agree we have to be realistic about the NET gain (or loss) of jobs as we transition to a cleaner energy mix, but “green jobs” are more than manufacturing jobs.

  • rockstar

    Double down on Fracking if you want good paying American jobs. We’ll work out the environmental implications later. And it kicks Iran in the nuts.

  • cryptozoologist

    if you go to china and walk around in any big city (especially in the south) you will see several storefronts selling solar hot water heaters like this one:
    http://www.solarthermalmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/sijiwang-solar-hot-water-heater.jpg
    one indicator of our country’s lack of interest in even the low hanging fruit is the fact that you can’t go into home depot or lowes home improvement centers and find a similar device.

    but even if we never make this or similar items in this country, do not forget to count all of the green jobs created simply by installing them and integrating them into our collective lifestyles. once a device like this is installed the energy used to heat all the water that runs through it no longer comes from dirty or unreliable sources. the money that consumer was sending to foreign energy companies now stays at home and our economy gains a multiplier effect from it. even if we buy the device from china.

  • Jim_M

    Sorry ladies. Big tough men running VERY heavy equipment still rule the day for energy production here on “real world”. The ENDLESS bleating of the effeminate left to leap from that reality to the clean energy of fairy wings is nauseating and futile. New energy is there but we wont access with “Green jobs”.

  • Jim_M

    Drill Baby DRILL !!!

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