The men who drilled the world’s first commercial oil well in 1859 near Titusville, Pennsylvania, probably knew they had jobs that had never existed before, but it is a fair bet they had no inkling that they were on the brink of changing the world. The operation was derided by locals as Drake’s Folly, after Edwin Drake, the former train conductor who oversaw the long-shot project. It took more than a year of false steps and trial and error for a drill to hit a pool of oil only 69 feet deep. Even afterward the impact of the strike was far from clear: The well soon went dry, and the drilling techniques Drake pioneered produced just 2,000 barrels of oil in the United States in that first year. But by 1900, production had reached 60 million barrels annually as world markets replaced wood and whale oil with petroleum and coal as the fuels of choice. For some, the transition was profoundly destabilizing. Industrial whaling, once a linchpin of the coastal economy, faded away as whale oil could not compete with petroleum-derived kerosene. Towns shrank and cities grew as gasoline-powered automobiles vastly expanded the possibilities of personal mobility. The American economy as we know it was built on this newfound and disruptive mastery of nonrenewable energy.
Today the downsides of this dependency are clear. A century and a half of burning fossil fuels has released 360 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air and shifted the global climate. Reliance on imported petroleum also threatens America’s economy and national security. These challenges could soon trigger another radical transition, this time toward renewable energy sources like solar, wind, hydroelectric, and geothermal. Much as improved drilling and refining techniques caused the cost of oil to plummet in the 19th century, new technologies could make renewable fuels cheap and ubiquitous. And once again, an energy transition could prove hugely disruptive, creating whole new categories of jobs while making old ones obsolete.
Major economic and institutional obstacles stand in the path of a green-energy revolution, however. Federal subsidies provide enormous support to entrenched energy sources. In 2009, governments around the world doled out $312 billion in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry while giving just $57 billion to renewable energy. And in a grim economic climate—the unemployment rate in the United States stands at 16 percent, including those not actively looking for jobs or underemployed—there is a natural tendency to cling to the jobs and businesses that exist right now. Judging from recent polls and election results, many Americans regard renewable energy as an uncertain bet at best, and at worst as a costly, government-directed folly. Many energy experts, including the panelists at our recent town hall meeting, have the opposite perspective, seeing resistance to renewables as the folly.
The green-energy sector in the United States is growing at twice the rate of the economy at large. Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a coauthor of a recent report quantifying the green economy, notes that Europe and China are investing heavily in solar, wind, and other renewables, anticipating a long-term payoff. Meanwhile, the United States is lagging behind. “We’ve underinvested for a long time in energy innovation,” Muro says. “We need to take care of the technology pipeline.”
To do that, the optimists—Muro would call them realists—will have to do better at trumpeting the upside. The naysayers who mocked Drake’s Folly soon found themselves enjoying an unimaginable procession of industrial advances. One day, historians might look back on the current tough climate and see it as prelude to an era of clean prosperity: the renewable energy age. —Eric A. Powell
Last April in Washington, D.C., with support from the National Science Foundation, DISCOVER and NBC News/Learn hosted a town hall exploring the economics of green energy and green jobs. The event was a partnership with the Weather Channel, the George Washington University, Planet Forward, and scienceforcitizens.net.
Conducted just a few miles from the Capitol building, where climate legislation such as the American Clean Energy and Security Act remains stalled, our town hall featured four panelists with diverse experience in low-carbon energy. Ken Zweibel is director of the George Washington University Solar Institute, a research facility focused on economic and policy issues related to solar technology. Timothy Juliani, director of corporate engagement at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, heads up that nonprofit’s Business Environmental Leadership Council. Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins is the CEO of Green For All, a nonprofit that focuses on increasing job opportunities in green industries. Chris Busch is policy and program director for the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of labor, business, environmental, and community groups working to spur investment in clean energy. Anne Thompson, chief environmental affairs correspondent for NBC News, moderated the event, which was held the same day the Japanese government raised the Fukushima reactor disaster to 7 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, fanning doubts about the future of nuclear power—currently the leading zero-carbon energy source.
ANNE THOMPSON: A lot of people were warming up to the idea of nuclear energy as a carbon-free alternative to fossil fuels. In a recent discover interview, energy secretary Steven Chu suggested that a new generation of miniature reactors could jump-start the nuclear industry in the United States. And then came the Fukushima meltdown in Japan. Was that a setback for a transition to a clean energy economy?
TIMOTHY JULIANI: I think it’s a moment for everybody to take a look at the dangers of all of our energy sources. The Fukushima accident was caused by a horrific natural catastrophe, and the reactors are continuing to have problems. But about 20 percent of U.S. power comes from nuclear. And while there are issues with safety and concerns about storage and waste, it’s also hard to imagine a clean energy future, a low-carbon energy future, without nuclear.
THOMPSON: Some have said the disaster provides an opportunity for the solar sector to show it can meet our needs without nuclear in the mix.
KEN ZWEIBEL: Solar and wind energy are capable of meeting all the energy needs that we have. There’s plenty of sunlight. There’s plenty of wind energy. It’s just a matter of shifting to a new paradigm and seeing a future without some of the fuels that have become an albatross.
THOMPSON: A main argument against clean energy is that it is far too expensive. How do you respond to that?
CHRIS BUSCH: Well, consider the environmental and public-health cost of burning fossil fuels. The National Research Council has estimated it at about $120 billion a year. Currently, dirty energy sources don’t have to account for the full cost of the pollution they release into the atmosphere, and that gives them an unfair advantage. The government has to set the rules of the market so clean energy can flourish. And clean energy is actually quite competitive in a lot of instances.
PHAEDRA ELLIS-LAMKINS: I agree. Those who are fighting clean energy focus on high prices, but at the same time they don’t talk about the real costs for the people who live with those dirty industries. When you look at the number of people who are dying on the job, when you look at the health of communities, when you look at the bp oil spill, the death of coal miners, we are paying in a different way for industries that are dirty. We are paying with our health costs.
ZWEIBEL: The first time you make something, you need economies of scale, you need technology development. And you need some history under your belt to get to lower costs. In the case of solar energy, it has come down 20 percent in price every time it doubles in volume. It doesn’t take many more doublings in volume to bring the cost down to levels that look awfully attractive.
JULIANI: Computers were very expensive when they were first in the market. Things get cheaper as production ramps up and technology improves. But you need the government to provide policy that helps to push these new energy technologies. You need industry to innovate. And you need consumers to buy into it. Until consumers are demanding clean power and the government really enacts policies in this country to push that into the marketplace, I think price probably is going to be an issue.
THOMPSON: What do you say to critics who maintain that if we move away from traditional energy sources we could lose our competitive edge?
JULIANI: I think not moving to clean energy costs us our competitive edge. Global investment in clean energy last year was about $243 billion. The Chinese were number one. Three years ago they were number three. The Chinese are exporting 95 percent of the solar photovoltaics that they make. They see the role that clean energy has in a modern global economy and they’re taking advantage of it.
BUSCH: Jobs installing, upgrading, and maintaining clean energy facilities will come with the transition, but right now China is outcompeting us with a focused, comprehensive manufacturing policy. China’s hidden advantage is the availability of financing. They’re making it easier to borrow money and more or less giving away land in order to help build the facilities. Our government is being outcompeted.
Another argument against switching to renewable energy is that there are fewer good jobs in clean energy than in fossil fuels.
ELLIS-LAMKINS: With a new green economy, we’ll have to start making things again, an opportunity that we are not seeing in other industries. We used to make things in this country, and we had workers who had high school diplomas who could get manufacturing jobs that paid decently and had health-care benefits. Then we changed to an information-based economy and began to lose those middle-class jobs.
JULIANI: Saying that we shouldn’t move to a clean energy economy because there are more fossil fuel jobs is like saying we shouldn’t have gone from the horse and buggy to the automobile because we had more farriers than we had auto mechanics. America has the most adaptive and innovative economy in the world. But if we don’t lead on this, others will.
Yet here in the United States, coal miners make almost $60,000 a year. Can the green industries really provide jobs like that?
ELLIS-LAMKINS: In places like Portland, Oregon, people are employed in energy efficiency, making it cheaper for homeowners to use electricity. Those jobs start out at about $15 an hour, which is a high starting rate. There are fewer coal jobs today than there were last year, and there will be fewer still next year. The industries that are growing, the ones that pay well, are the clean energy industries.
BUSCH: One of the best examples is in California, where studies have shown that green jobs—in the narrow sense of generating clean electricity or doing other pollution-reduction work—are growing about three times faster than other types of jobs. From 2007 to 2008, with the economy shrinking, green jobs in California grew by 5 percent.
THOMPSON: When it comes to investment in clean energy, China is number one, Germany is number two, and the United States comes in third while Spain and Japan are catching up. What happened to us?
JULIANI: The countries that have enabled policy to drive their clean energy sectors are taking the lead. Germany is one of the cloudiest countries on the planet and yet it is one of the global leaders in solar. That doesn’t happen by accident. China has made clean energy a top priority and has instituted policy to see that through. Until the U.S. gets serious, this will be a problem.
THOMPSON: Are we just waiting for a signal from the government, then?
BUSCH: It’s not a signal so much as specific policies that lay the framework for clean energies to flourish. We need things like a renewable electricity standard that gradually increases the amount of clean electricity that we’re using. We must support R&D that leads to breakthrough technologies for the long run, but a lot of these technologies are ready to come in now (see “Bringing Power to the People—by Plugging Into the Sahara”). A lot of states are taking these steps. In California, a bill just passed to increase use of renewable electricity to 33 percent by 2020. We’re just coming up on 20 percent now. And that doesn’t count the large hydroelectric dams. It just counts wind, solar, and geothermal.
THOMPSON: How many people work in clean energy jobs overseas—say, in China?
JULIANI: A Chinese industry group report puts the figure at about 1.1 million in China in the renewables industry. And they estimate that this is growing at 100,000 jobs per year—which, relative to the overall number of Chinese, might be small, but we would take 100,000 jobs a year in the United States right now.
THOMPSON: Solar panels were first developed in this country, and yet today most of them are made in China. What’s behind that?
ZWEIBEL: Around 2003, the Chinese government made the export of solar modules a key policy priority. They went from being almost nothing in the marketplace to having more than 50 percent of the production in the world. So they certainly had a government policy that resulted in manufacturing. The United States basically avoids those kinds of policy choices, at least at the federal level. And our country is being outcompeted because of that.
ELLIS-LAMKINS: When you look at other countries, their policies provide incentives for the industries they want to grow. We don’t have any of those policies at a national level, though some states—not just California but also Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Texas—are looking to take on innovation themselves.
THOMPSON: What does the United States risk by not being a leader in clean energy?
BUSCH: The risk is that we’ll lose out on the trillion-dollar industries of the future. Even during the economic downturn over the last couple of years, solar installation has been going up, while the cost has been going down. This is where the action is going to be. There are economic gains to be made by moving to clean energy, which should convince the people who are not convinced by the climate arguments, or the clean air arguments, or the national security arguments. We need to lead and not lag.
THOMPSON: Can the United States catch up?
BUSCH: Absolutely. We’re already the leader in technological innovation. We need to catch up on the manufacturing. We need to catch up on our policy framework, but we absolutely can.
ZWEIBEL: We have fallen behind in clean energy because we haven’t had a consensus to move ahead. If we had a political consensus, we could move ahead as fast as, or faster than, anyone in the world.
THOMPSON: One of the things that have struck me in reporting on this issue is that a significant segment of the business community wants to see some kind of definitive policy because they like certainty. They want to know how much they’re going to have to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions. And while a lot of cities and states have tried to tackle the issue of greenhouse-gas reduction, at the federal level the country is at a standstill. What is it going to take to change that?
ZWEIBEL: I’m afraid the states may remain the real source of innovation in this debate in the United States. In Colorado the state legislature was totally against the renewable energy standard, but a grassroots movement helped get a referendum on the ballot in 2004, and it was approved within weeks. You’d be amazed how many politicians were in favor of it then. It was totally transformational.
ELLIS-LAMKINS: The clean energy revolution will be led by people in communities, but in the end we’ll need federal commitment to make it a reality.
In conjunction with this town hall, discover is partnering with scienceforcitizens.net to call on the public to help track climate change through citizen science projects. Thousands of researchers, working across dozens of disciplines, need your help to advance their work. To learn how to get involved, go to scienceforcitizens.net