A few years ago, Craig Winn launched a new company with two employees and a good idea: leverage the auto industry’s engineering prowess to improve solar manufacturing. Three years later, the Michigan-based company has hired nearly 50 workers and doubled its production capacity. The secret to its success is using precision techniques from car manufacturing to make the metal frames that hold solar panels. Business has been so good the company is opening a new plant in Ohio this year.
This is just one of thousands of success stories emerging from the clean energy sector right now. Across the country, clean energy entrepreneurs are embodying the best elements of America’s can-do capitalism: ingenuity, resourcefulness, daring, and triumph. And their innovative ideas are generating jobs and economic growth in the process.
In the last quarter alone, clean energy companies announced more than 70 projects leading to as many as 37,000 job openings, according to new analysis released by Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), the national group of 800-plus business leaders who support sound economic and environmental policies.
These new job postings appeared in 30 different states. Nearly one-third were concentrated in the Midwest, including Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois, confirming that clean technologies are breathing new life into Rust Belt communities.
Some of these jobs are being created by large corporations. Panasonic, for instance, is investing $8.16 million in a facility in Michigan to research sound systems and human-machine interaction in electric vehicles. GE announced plans to add 300 jobs at its advanced vehicle manufacturing center in Michigan.
Other job announcements come from small businesses, like the Solar Specialist, a female-owned business in Canton, Michigan. The company designs and installs solar and other renewable equipment for homes and commercial buildings. It has between 15 and 25 local employees and contractors performing jobs in Southeast Michigan.
A major part of the clean energy industry is a risk, however, because of uncertainty over the federal Production Tax Credit. These incentives have helped spur growth in the wind sector, and they enjoy broad bipartisan support. Yet some lawmakers want to let the incentives expire at the end of this year—a move that would put an estimated 37,000 wind industry employees out of work.
The unstable nature of the Production Tax Credit reveals that even though growth in the clean energy sector has come in response to market demand, businesses still need long-term clarity to make strategic investments. Clear, dependable clean energy policies can deliver that certainty.
We already see it in the auto sector. A recent report from Driving Growth, a partnership between NRDC, National Wildlife Foundation, and Michigan League of Conservation Voters, tracked carmakers’ extraordinary recovery in recent years. Since June 2009 when the U.S. auto industry hit rock bottom, the industry has grown by 236,600 jobs. Automakers, suppliers, and car dealers are looking ahead to a brighter future after the dark days of the recession.
A close look at the job announcements confirms that a large part of the success is due to new fuel efficiency standards. Companies have to invest in innovative technologies to meet the 35.5 miles per gallon standard by 2016 and the 54.5 miles per gallon standard by 2025. This requires designing new hybrids and electric cars, but also retooling popular models to make them more go farther on a gallon of gas. Companies are making more investments and hiring more workers to design and install new turbochargers, 8-speed transmissions, and other efficiency boosters.
Stronger standards are also leading to more “onshoring” of American jobs. Carmakers need such high volumes of fuel-efficiency components they are now justified in making them here in the United States. Honda, for instance, recently announced plans to invest $40 million and move all global Civic Hybrid manufacturing to its Greensburg, Indiana plant from Japan, creating 300 jobs by the end of the year.
At the same time these clean car standards are creating jobs, they are also helping put more money in drivers’ pockets. The 54.5 miles per gallon standard will save Americans $1.7 trillion at the gas pump and cut our oil imports by one-third.
And this is what makes the clean energy sector extraordinary. Not only does it generate economic growth and create new jobs, but it also delivers lower energy costs, cleaner air, and a more stable climate. This is America’s innovative and entrepreneurial spirit at its best, and our leaders should celebrate and reward it.