What Do “Green Jobs” Produce?

In Climate Change, Economics, Energy by E. Calvin Beisner

Cornwall Alliance advisory board member H. Sterling Burnett published a good piece in the Washington Times recently that rebuts claims about “Green jobs” in two ways.

Burnett points out that in response to President Donald Trump’s saying one reason to withdraw from the Paris climate accord was that staying in would drive energy prices higher, causing the loss of 6.5 million industrial jobs by 2040, supporters of wind and solar energy claim that job gains in wind and solar energy production would (partially) offset those losses.

Burnett responds:

This claim is true — at least, in a limited sense. In absolute numbers, the U.S. Department of Energy reports solar power employed 43 percent of the electric power generation sector’s workforce in 2016, employing more than 374,000 workers who construct, assemble, sell or install solar panels. Fossil fuels combined accounted for just 22 percent (187,000) of the jobs directly tied to generating electric power.

But that’s all misleading, Burnett says. Why?

First, “these numbers leave out” mining and transportation jobs related to coal and gas, and coal-related jobs in steel mills.

Second, the jobs in wind and solar “are artifacts of various government interventions in the market,” not the free choices of consumers and investors.

Third, jobs in the solar sector pay roughly half of what jobs in the coal and gas sectors pay.

But fourth and most important,

… while coal generates 7,745 megawatt-hours (MWH) of electricity per worker and natural gas generates 3,812 MWH of electricity per worker, wind generates just 836 MWH per worker and solar delivers a dismal 98 MWH per worker. “In other words, producing the same amount of electricity requires one coal worker, two natural gas workers, 12 wind industry employees or 79 solar workers,” Mr. [Paul] Driessen wrote.

(The situation for solar is actually considerably worse. At the end of 2016, solar employed about 374,000, while coal employed about 160,000. Solar provides 6 percent of renewable energy’s 10 percent of total energy; 0.1 x 0.06 = 0.006. Coal provides 15 percent not of renewable’s 10 percent of total energy but 15 percent of total energy; 15 / 0.006 = 2,500. But it takes twice as many workers for solar to provide that 0.006 percent of total energy, so the productivity of coal per job is 2,500 x 2 = 5,000 times the productivity of solar per job. See “The Gory Facts about Solar vs. Coal Energy Employment.”)

One last point: Justifying a policy because it creates or preserves jobs is bad economics. Jobs are costs, not benefits.

Featured image “Governor Manchin: We want Green Jobs and Healthy Mountains!” courtesy of DanaK~WaterPenny, Flickr creative commons.

Dr. Beisner is Founder and National Spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance; former Associate Professor of Historical Theology & Social Ethics, at Knox Theological Seminary, and of Interdisciplinary Studies, at Covenant College; and author of “Where Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental Debate” and “Prospects for Growth: A Biblical View of Population, Resources, and the Future.”