We're overlooking one of the best solutions for creating clean jobs
© Getty Images

President BidenJoe BidenBiden to meet with 6 GOP senators next week Arizona secretary of state gets security detail over death threats surrounding election audit On The Money: Five takeaways on a surprisingly poor jobs report | GOP targets jobless aid after lackluster April gain MORE has made it clear: climate and clean energy legislation is about jobs, jobs, jobs. You needn’t look further than his first offering of an infrastructure package, titled the American Jobs Plan and whose factsheet by my count used the word “job” no fewer than 80 times.

As Congress considers Biden’s plan, you can bet the jobs debate will only grow louder. How do we recover the millions of jobs lost since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic? How do we address historic inequities and ensure opportunities are available to everybody? And as the economy shifts toward a clean energy future, what is going to happen to the millions of workers in fossil fuel-related industries?

As the president of a bipartisan advocacy group, I know it’s not sustainable politically, much less morally, to leave these questions with any loose ends. We need to get more specific now about what jobs of the future look like — and that starts with understanding that the clean energy economy is a lot broader than most people realize.

ADVERTISEMENT

Too often, clean energy jobs are framed as being high tech, restricted to a select few parts of the country, and centered around renewable fuel sources. This is far from the truth. In fact, the energy efficiency sector is by far the biggest employer in clean energy, employing nearly 2.4 million workers in 2019. That is more than a quarter of all energy jobs in the United States, double the number of employees in traditional fossil fuels, and nearly seven times more than wind and solar combined. Why are we not talking about the enormous opportunity for jobs in America’s largest clean energy sector?

One reason is that energy efficiency jobs are in many different sectors, making it difficult to understand what exactly energy efficiency jobs are. As counted by the U.S. Energy and Employment Report, energy efficiency jobs include “both the production and installation of energy-saving products and the provision of services that reduce end-use energy consumption.” Think made in America ENERGY STAR appliances, construction workers retrofitting buildings, and energy service companies auditing homes to evaluate opportunities to reduce waste. The fact that energy efficiency work is so varied means it offers opportunities to a number of skillsets and job training programs, allowing it to absorb workers from other sectors as needs change.

And energy efficiency jobs aren’t limited by where there’s enough sunshine for solar or oil in the ground. There are 361,329 energy efficiency businesses in the U.S., found in 99.7 percent of U.S. counties in every state. They represent hundreds of thousands of small businesses, with 97 percent of energy efficiency companies having fewer than 100 employees. And critically, these jobs pay well — averaging nearly 30 percent higher than the national hourly wage median and with nearly double the national unionization rate.

Aside from being a jobs powerhouse, energy efficiency is one of the most powerful decarbonization approaches we have: The jobs done by energy efficiency workers prevent billions of tons of greenhouse gases from ever being emitted, with the International Energy Agency finding that efficiency can account for more than 40 percent of the emission cuts needed to reach Paris Agreement goals.

It’s clear that the inflection point for our energy system has arrived, and the months ahead are going to be critical for getting policies in place to ensure we’re not leaving workers stranded. Efficiency added more new jobs than any other energy sector in 2019, and while COVID-19 has hit hard, analysis shows that federal investment could create 1.3 million more jobs in the industry. Programs should be targeted to reach the most at-risk communities; for example, retrofitting public buildings in low-income areas, providing grants to minority-owned small businesses to make efficiency upgrades, and job retraining efforts focused on places highly impacted by the energy transition.

ADVERTISEMENT

Jobs in energy efficiency are hardly going to fix all the challenges of the coming years. But it’s important to talk now about every opportunity in the clean energy economy so we can place our investment where it will have the highest returns.

You’d be hard pressed to find a sector that ticks as many boxes as efficiency. Energy efficiency jobs are ripe for growth, found in every community, grounded in small business, offer competitive compensation, accessible to a multitude of skillsets, and significantly contribute to greenhouse gas reduction. As policymakers decide what our infrastructure and investments of the future look like, efficiency should be top of mind.

Paula Glover is president of Alliance to Save Energy.