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What Levels of Job Creation Will Come from Renewable Energy?

Over the past year or so, I’ve written a few pieces on the levels of job creation that can be expected as we “go green,” i.e., move to greater levels of energy efficiency, renewables, electric transportation, etc.

Last week I met Tom Konrad, one of the world’s most visible proponents of the green economy, at a conference in NY City. During one of our numerous conversations, I learned that he and I had been trying to get to the root of this very issue – and through very similar analyses. In particular, we had both investigated the work of Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (PERI) and one of its most senior people, Robert Pollin.

Here’s an article Tom wrote on green job creation that breaks some of this out. Note, however, that both this article and PERI’s work seem to reduce the question at hand to this: For each million dollars in spending, how many jobs do we get – and of what kind and duration?

While this is interesting, to me, it misses some central issues. Consider the following line of thinking:

A million dollars? Who’s doing the spending? The federal government? Are we proposing a kind of New Deal program? Why? Why can’t this spending come from the private sector?

But what are the conditions under which that will happen? Private money isn’t going anywhere at all right now, and most certainly not into unproven technologies (of which clean energy represents several).

So what would stimulate private sector spending? How about real economic opportunity?

OK, what’s standing in the way of demonstrating real economic opportunity? It’s the nature of the playing field. Depending on how one does the accounting, fossil fuels receive between five and six dollars in subsidies for every dollar going to renewables. That’s fundamentally a matter of corruption; it’s a simple transfer of wealth from an impoverished taxpayer to an extremely rich oil company. And of course, essentially no attempt is being made to force oil and coal companies to pay for the externalities their industries produce (e.g., lung disease and long-term environmental damage).

Trust me, once this inequity is rectified, you’ll have private capital coming into clean energy in torrents, and we won’t be asking questions like “How much further in debt does the federal government have to go to build green jobs?”

In other words, we’re simply asking the wrong question. It’s like asking, “How can I improve my reading comprehension while I’m beating myself on the head with a hammer?” The answer is this: “Just stop beating yourself on the head, and the issue will disappear.”