Even in a low growth economy, the renewable energy sector continues to expand. The question for presidential politics is not whether or not the cleantech sector continues to grow but, rather, how quickly it accelerates.
The Future of Energy: It’s Already Here
As the United States braces for yet another record hot summer, the Democratic and Republican candidates for president have released differing visions for the future of the American economy through the common lens of domestic energy production and the environment.
Politics aside, the future of the American energy market has already shifted, and it is decidedly green.
Last week former Vice President Joe Biden announced his plan to invest $1.7 trillion “in our clean energy future and environmental justice” over the next 10 years, financed by “rolling back the Trump tax incentives that enrich corporations at the expense of American jobs and the environment.”
This is all well and good, but the smart money has already spoken. American households already want to “go green” by getting solar panels, even if only to save money on their utility bills. On a larger scale, American companies have the same ethos, and have essentially “underwrit[ten] the European Union’s ambitious climate goals” with long term renewables contracts for their Eurozone operations, which cuts costs to the corporate ratepayers while boosting the bottom lines of European utilities. For instance Amazon announced the purchase of 100,000 electric vehicles (“EV”) as an effort to be carbon neutral by 2040.
Employment in the Renewable Energy Sector
While the environmental impact of carbon offset is clear, the job creation that flows through renewable energy use stands in stark contrast to the demise of the carbon-based economy of the past. A case in point is total employment in the U.S. oil and gas industry which has dropped 30% over the past five years.
By contrast, Solar Photovoltaic Installers and Wind Turbine Service Technicians are projected to be the two fastest-growing jobs over the next five years according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with average salaries hovering near $42,000 and $54,000, respectively. There is a massive resource reallocation going on in the United States economy, and this has repercussions for American labor.
Policy Meets Politics
No matter who occupies the Oval Office come January 2021, the growth in renewables-related employment will continue. The rate of this growth, however, may vary depending on which candidate prevails on November 3.
In theory, President Trump’s America First Energy Plan would be a natural triangulation of his key talking points: American independence from OPEC; a more localized, resilient energy grid; and, as the data show: jobs.
The Trump administration claims that it seeks to “balance environmental protection with economic growth”. In truth, the administration’s singular focus seems to be on deregulating the energy industry and scrapping Obama-era climate change policies, treaties, and programs that would mitigate the impact of climate change on communities across the country. Contrary to the stated goals, this helps neither environmental protection nor economic growth.
Wait — “Clean Energy” is Actually Dirty?
To be sure, the clean energy economy is not the end-all solution to either the current recession or the ills that result from a warming globe. To name just one sustainability issue in the cleantech sector, the waste generated from fiberglass wind turbine blades, quite ironically, presents yet another type of extremely bulky non-biodegradable industrial waste that needs to be dealt with.
Similarly, today it is more cost-effective to dispose of decommissioned solar panels by landfill than it is to recycle them. One estimate is that by 2050, China alone could accumulate more than 20 million tons of hazardous waste from decommissioned solar panels.
Nevertheless, the energy produced by wind turbines and solar systems has been a boon to states over the past three decades — including many of the states that catapulted Donald Trump to victory in 2016.
It’s important to recognize these issues are mainly limited to the end of life, and do not take into consideration the sourcing of materials or the shipping and manufacturing of components. Nevertheless “clean energy” is still more sustainable and environmentally beneficial than carbon-based fuels.
Ultimately the U.S. job market faces unprecedented challenges due to the concurrent economic and public health crises. It is still unclear how quickly the economy will recover, and what such a recovery will look like for the economy as a whole, and for the labor market in particular. As Donald Trump and Joe Biden begin to define the contours of their climate policies, it is important to remember that beyond the speeches and policy proposals, the most telling sign for the future trends in American energy production and consumption will be to simply follow the money. Right now the money is on cleantech, and this will remain true for the next four years whether that is under President Trump, President Biden, or President West.