Green Jobs: Keeping your eye on the ball

A recent Washington Post article bemoans the closure of a GE plant making old-fashioned incandescent lamps with a loss of 200 jobs, and tries to frame the question in terms of government regulation. It uses this plant closure to question whether a focus on green jobs will really help the economy.

But the article errs in focusing on only one detail -- the closure of an individual plant -- while not connecting the dots (even though it paints many of these dots itself).

Let’s start with the plant closure. GE’s Winchester, VA plant was obviously not up to date -- the uncomfortable working conditions at that plant (described in the article) are typical of plants that are being milked by their owner for output until they close rather than investing in upgrading for the future. The GE plant closure, which the article incorrectly links to new light bulb efficiency standards, was a decision made by GE to eliminate jobs rather than modernize the plant. A competing company, Sylvania, made the opposite decision with their St. Mary’s PA plant, investing in new production facilities to make more efficient light bulbs and retain 265 jobs.

This is the continuing tragedy of green jobs: the consequence of companies that fail to innovate and modernize their American manufacturing plants can still make money from overseas operations, while their workers, who could be assured continuing jobs with better working conditions, suffer the pain.

I wonder how any rational person could link the closure of the GE plant in autumn of 2010 to the problems of meeting a standard that doesn’t begin to take effect until 2012 and still allows production of the old technology through 2014. If the plant was otherwise viable, why not keep it in production through the end of December 2013? Clearly other factors were the real ones responsible for this plant closing: no one would close a plant in response to a regulation that isn’t even in effect.

The real story here is about the need to be out in front when it comes to green technology. The article clearly (but slowly) explains that if GE had invested in CFL technology development in the 80s the business would not have gone to China. The U.S. could have had dominance in the market for efficient lighting if our companies had worked on the innovative green technologies when they had the lead in technology.

We still have a chance to do this with other green technologies, especially with lighting. The U.S. Department of Energy is working in collaboration with lighting companies on research that aims at developing LED lights that are even more efficient than the best products available today, and several companies are establishing new facilities in the U.S. that can assure that American products are at the leading edge of technology and that American workers are being used to produce them.

There is a consistent trend of companies with no-longer-competitive plants opposing policies promoting environmental technologies while letting these obsolete plants limp along without being modernized as long as they can produce any revenue at all. They then blame environmentalists, or just the government, when the fruits of their neglect are ripe and the plant finally is closed.

And speaking of blaming the government, we must remember that in a free enterprise system, jobs are often lost due to plant closures. We could assure job stability by government regulations preventing layoffs or through government ownership of production facilities, but America has chosen (wisely, I think) not to go down that road.

The key problem with looking at the plant closure in the context of lamp efficiency is that the lamp standards referred to in the article will save consumers $10 billion a year when fully phased in.

This $10 billion represents money that consumers and businesses will no longer have to pay in their utility bills and instead can use for purchases that are more fun. Lower utility bills for lighting will allow consumers to go out to eat more, to buy baseball tickets or go to the movies more, and when they do this, new jobs will be created. This is where the real green jobs come in. $10 billion in new spending will produce 100,000 new jobs. As much as losing 200 jobs at a GE plant is a tragedy and saving 265 jobs at a Sylvania plant is something to celebrate, they are small potatoes compared to 100,000 new jobs from greener light bulbs.