Clean Energy Jobs a Labor Day Bright Spot

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As we pause to celebrate the American worker, we look ahead to a healthier, more sustainable future.

This Labor Day comes amid mixed news and uncertainty for millions of American workers. One thing, though, is clear: the transition to a clean energy future is creating jobs, driving growth and restoring promise to our families nationwide, even as it moves us forward on the road to a healthier, cleaner, more sustainable world. We need to advance that progress, with policies that build on our strengths and success.

For more than a century, this nation has paused on the first Monday in September to pay tribute to the contributions the American worker. From the men and women who built our roads, bridges, railways and canals, to the great minds and strong bodies behind our rise as an industrial powerhouse, to the heroes of the information revolution, the American worker has been the force behind successive generations of prosperity, promise and progress.

This year, we can look to new opportunities for the American worker in the shift from the dirty fossil fuels of the past to the clean energy solutions of the future. In the second quarter of this year, NRDC affiliate tracked nearly 40 new projects to advance clean energy and sustainable transportation. Together, these projects will create nearly 10,500 American jobs.

Leading the way is the quest to get more power from the wind and sun. Together, those industries employ 250,000 Americans, adding another 9,258 new jobs just last spring. These are good-paying jobs that can't be outsourced for workers in places like Georgia, Colorado, Michigan, Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas, North Carolina and elsewhere around the country.

Photo: Alex Snyder/Wayne National Forest.

And when it comes to jobs and economic growth, wind and solar power are just getting started.

During the first seven months of this year, wind and solar accounted for 57 percent of all new electricity generating capacity installed in our country. During the first five months of this year, those two sources provided 5.5 percent of our electricity nationwide, four times the portion they produced in 2008.

By 2030, we'll be able to get a full third of our electricity from the wind and sun, according to the U.S. Energy Department. And by 2050, those two sources can provide nearly two-thirds of our electricity.

At the same time, wind and solar prices are falling fast, as production scales up and sales volumes grow. Anyone planning now for a new power source to come on line in 2020 is looking at this number: producing electricity from a wind turbine will cost 23 percent less on average, than producing it from coal. And in more than 14 states, it's now as cheap, or cheaper, to make electricity from the sun as it is to buy it from your local power company. A year from now, that will be the case in about 47 states, according to an analysis by the global banking giant, Deutsche Bank Securities Inc.

At the global scale, Deutsche Bank reports that 30 percent of the world's electricity will come from the sun by 2050.

We need to prepare the American worker for success in these fast-growing global markets, and President Obama's Clean Power Plan will help. It encourages more wind and solar power as one way to cut the harmful carbon emissions from our power plants. That's dangerous pollution that's driving global climate change.

The plan also will create hundreds of thousands of jobs for carpenters, electricians, roofers and others who can help make our homes and workplaces more efficient. Doing more with less waste is the fastest and cheapest way to reduce our carbon footprint.

Policy incentives are also helping us transition the clean energy future. While wind and solar power is competitive in many markets, federal incentives help make sure all Americans have access to clean energy.

Wind power has benefitted from a federal production tax credit worth 2.2 cents for every kilowatt-hour of electricity a turbine produces during the first ten years of its life. The credit expired, though at the end of last year. We need Congress to renew this two-penny incentive to keep wind power moving forward.

Solar power qualifies for a 30-percent investment tax credit. Congress has scheduled that credit to expire at the end of next year. That, though, would be a mistake. Congress needs to reconsider and extend this helpful credit.

You may have heard opponents of these incentives call them a taxpayer subsidy. Yes, temporarily, and they're providing a sound return on the investment: cleaner air, good-paying jobs, a stronger economy and less of the dangerous carbon pollution that's driving climate change.

Don't forget, though, we're also subsidizing the production and consumption of fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal, to the tune of many billions of dollars each year. Those are hardly the fuels of the future: we've been burning them for centuries, with environmental destruction, danger and damage to show for it. It's time to end subsidies for fossil fuels, and invest in clean energy solutions.

When politicians endorse policies like fossil fuel subsidies that put polluter profits first and put the rest of us at risk, they often blame unemployment on environmental protections. That's wrong, of course. When you ask managers why they lay off workers, they cite market demand, financial issues, restructuring and other reasons 99 percent of the time, and say government regulations, of all kinds, account for about 1 percent of all lay-offs.

The fact is, workers and employers alike count on common-sense environmental protections, just as we all depend on sound regulations that protect the integrity of our currency, our financial markets, safety in our workplaces, homes and cars and health standards for our food and drugs. Without responsible public oversight, a vibrant, modern economy simply couldn't exist.

Labor Day is a special holiday, a time we pause to lay down our tools, take stock of a quality of life our forebears could scarcely imagine, and say thanks to the American worker for creating it. And, as we ponder the distance we've traveled, let's envision, also, the way ahead, on the road to the clean energy future, and the American jobs that come with it.