Clean energy is growing the economy and driving down emissions

Clean energy is growing the economy and driving down emissions
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The economic expansion since 2009 is historic not just for its duration, but for the role that America’s energy sector has played in creating jobs and reducing carbon emissions. Over the past 12 months this trend has solidified and brought our domestic energy sector to its cleanest place in history.

While the energy jobs of our forefathers still exist, the most dynamic growth is now occurring in clean energy generation, according to the 2018 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook, released this week. This includes natural gas, solar, wind, hydropower, biofuels, and waste-to-energy — and energy efficiency. Together, these sectors support 3 million jobs nationwide. 

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The strength of job creation in clean energy generation comes partly from the wide-ranging skill base required to convert the power of the sun, wind, water, and waste into kilowatts needed to power our homes. Clean energy production creates jobs at many stages in the process — not just manufacturing. Additional jobs can be found in system design, project development, installation, operation and management — and the information technology that ties it all together. 

 

The development of clean energy generation projects also drives jobs for other industries that tend to be inherently local. For example, an effective natural gas plant or commercial-scale solar, wind, or hydropower project is a major undertaking requiring steel infrastructure, landscaping, civil engineering and substantial manpower to lay transmission lines or pipelines. Biomass projects require close coordination with local paper companies and foresters. Even rooftop solar projects require highly skilled labor.

While the job creation numbers are increasing year over year, they are actually dwarfed by the number of jobs held by people focused on the efficient use of electricity in home, commercial and industrial applications. Energy efficiency jobs reached nearly 2.2 million in 2016, up from 1.9 million the year before. Nearly two-thirds of these jobs are in construction and are characterized by their high-skill and transferability.

All of these jobs in efficiency mean that Americans are more productive than ever with our nation’s energy resources. The energy productivity of the U.S. economy has grown 17.3 percent since 2008. In short, the U.S. economy can continue to expand as total energy consumption rates decline. This is due to the fact that clean energy generation technologies are more cost effective than ever before, and saving energy means saving money — a concept universally understood by businesses large and small, and at the kitchen table.

The immediate economic benefits from more clean energy generation and more efficient energy use has translated to a vital long-term benefit of lower greenhouse gas emissions. With the Paris Agreement in the background and lawsuits surrounding proposals to rescind and replace the Clean Power Plan, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have fallen to their lowest levels since 1991. In 2017, emissions fell 1.4 percent year-on-year to an estimated 6.4GtCO2e.

This fast-paced transformation of the energy sector continues to drive our economy’s de-carbonization. Emissions from this sector ebbed 4.2 percent in 2017, this time on the back of declining load and greater renewable generation instead of switching from coal to natural gas. As a result, power-sector emissions are now 28 percent below their 2005 peak.

The message of these groundbreaking statistics is simple and straightforward. A growing economy does not have to be at odds with lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, thanks to thoughtful policy, entrepreneurial spirit, and hard work by more and more Americans employed by the clean energy sector we are turning the corner towards a sustainable energy economy capable of improving job creation alongside with environmental quality.

Charles Hernick is the director of Policy and Advocacy at Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions Forum, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization committed to educating the public and influencing the national conversation about clean energy.  

Lisa Jacobson is the president of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, a coalition of companies and trade associations from the energy efficiency, natural gas and renewable energy sectors.