Well paid jobs – lots of them. That is the promise President Joe Biden makes to transform the US energy sector with the goal of making it energy efficient, environmentally friendly, and a catalyst for long-term economic growth.
As Biden represents to be– including switching to renewables, electric vehicles and upgrading the national electricity grid – would create jobs at least as good as those that could be lost in the process. His plans include 100% renewable energy in the energy sector by 2035.
For people who have made careers in the fossil fuel industry, these plans seem more of a serious threat. For the president, however, unemployed oil workers could be transferred to other jobs – plugging uncovered oil wells, for example – and thousands more jobs would be created to connect power lines and build electric vehicles and their components.
“We think there are many positions to be filled and one of the most important questions is: How do we create the right skills base to fill these positions?” said Matt Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass Technologies, a labor market analyst.
The prospects for the energy industry for decades to come, as Biden’s plan foresees, include good wages and benefits, reinforced by a revitalization of the unions.
“I’m a unionist,” he said at a union training center in Pittsburgh. “I support unions, unions built the middle class, and it is time they started to get part of the action.”
However, a faster transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies would hardly be as easy as longtime wildcatters turning into solar installers. So many unknowns tower over the shift towards greener energy that no one knows how the industry and its jobs will develop in the years to come.
For one thing, many experts say the transition to electric vehicles is likely to mean fewer factory workers than are currently used in the manufacture of internal combustion engines and complex transmissions. Electric vehicles have 30% to 40% fewer moving parts than vehicles that run on petroleum.
However, economists have warned that climate change is such a major threat that the United States must accelerate its transition to renewable energy to ensure its economic security.
Can clean energy work replace lost fossil fuel jobs?
Even with favorable policies, it can take generations to create jobs in individual industries. For example, during his presidency, Barack Obama promoted tax incentives for the development of solar and wind energy. These efforts have made some progress. Nevertheless, solar and wind remain small sectors of the entire energy industry to this day.
“When you think about incentives and misdirection, it’s easy to kill something. It’s difficult to create,” said Rob Sentz, chief innovation officer at Emsi, a data analytics company.
According to Burning Glass, the renewable energy industry employed around 410,000 people in 2019, including in the solar, wind, geothermal, hydropower, biomass and biofuel industries. By comparison, employment for oil and gas in 2020 alone was 516,000, including production, pipelines, refining, and other elements of the industry. Another 485,000 people worked at gas stations, although gas stations are technically classified as retail, according to Burning Glass.
“It is a pipe dream to imagine that we will achieve full decarbonization in a short time,” said Sigelman. “Jobs in the carbon economy will remain in large numbers for some time to come.”
Even so, Sigelman estimates that the renewable energy industry could grow by up to 22% to a total of 465,000 jobs over the next five years.
In general, economists say investing in the country’s aging infrastructure, including its power grid, would significantly fuel growth in the long run.
How about the payment?
It depends on the type of job and who you ask. Many in the oil and gas industry fear that if they switched to renewable energy jobs, their wages would fall. However, many economists say that incomes could be comparable whether a worker works in an oil field or in a wind farm.
According to Emsi, the average annual wage for solar installers in 2020 was $ 44,650. For wind turbine service technicians, it was approximately $ 52,100.
In the oil industry, derrick operators, rotary drill operators, service unit operators and operators of excavation and loading machines earn an average annual wage of between 44,700 and 55,000 US dollars, says Emsi. The median for roustabouts and helpers with the extraction work was between $ 37,000 and $ 39,000.
Oil and gas field technicians make an average of about $ 39,000 a year, Sigelman said. These workers could, in theory, move into areas like electrical engineering jobs, which are paid about $ 25,000 more annually, or construction foreman jobs, the median of which is about $ 27,000 more per year.
Some jobs span the divide
One point that is often overlooked in any debate about green energy versus fossil fuel jobs is that the line between the two can blur. For example, you need truckers, electricians, and mechanics to install wind turbines.
“It’s the same people who do the work,” said Sentz. “You call it green, but it’s still a trucker.”
Likewise, work to install or repair power and transmission lines is critical to both the renewable energy and fossil fuel industries. The growth of renewable energies planned by Biden requires a massive expansion of the transmission and power lines in order to deliver electricity from the solar parks and wind parks on sunny plains to the energy-consuming coasts. Whether for fossil fuels or renewable projects, electrical workers who line up the cables are already in demand.
The number of job advertisements in the power distribution industry has increased by 35% over the past two years, and the number of jobs in power and communication line construction has increased by 63%.
“It is difficult for them to find the people they need for their work,” said Sentz.
Powerline installers, in demand everywhere, earn around $ 72,000 a year, according to Emsi, more than some others in the energy sector.
“Every county in the country needs them,” said Sentz.
An electrician who has worked on transmission lines for coal-fired power plants for 20 years will be in great demand building infrastructure for renewable energy projects, and these are typically union jobs, said Bob Keefe, executive director of E2, a non-partisan group sit down for a policy that serves the economy and the environment.
Clean energy projects are also construction projects and can also support a number of high paying commercial jobs.
Jason Walsh, Executive Director of the BlueGreen Alliance, which is committed to expanding the trade in clean energy, points to the United States. ‘First offshore wind farm, for example at the expense of Rhode Island. While relatively small with just five turbines, “this project alone supported more than 300 jobs across the construction industry – we’re talking about welders, pipe fitters, iron drivers … tug drivers,” Walsh told CBS MoneyWatch. “For us this is an example of how much work there is out there.”
“Stringing power lines is stringing power lines,” Keefe said. “We’re just doing it better and more efficiently, and plugging them into the right places where they are needed to get some of the renewable energy we are now producing to where it needs to be.”
The area of energy efficiency, which encompasses a range of works from weathering buildings to converting their cooling systems to building energy efficient appliances, is another area that environmentalists consider to be common. According to the BlueGreen Alliance, there are around 2.3 million Americans working in the field of energy efficiency today. The field can grow rapidly as more buildings need to be retrofitted and upgraded to cause less pollution.
How quickly are green jobs replacing fossil fuel jobs?
It’s difficult to say. According to a Deloitte study, the oil, gas and chemical industries lost 107,000 jobs between March and August last year. It did so after the pandemic squeezed demand for jet fuel and gasoline when tens of millions of people stayed at home. And coal mining jobs have declined for years, from 92,000 in 2011 to around 53,000 in 2019, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Biden plans to spend $ 16 billion to get hundreds of thousands of these people back to work and plug unconnected oil wells and mines. However, such spending would have to be approved by Congress, so the number of jobs that could be created remains unclear.
Offshore wind projects in the US created around 7,500 jobs in 2020. Projects developed off the coast of the United States are projected to create 85,000 jobs over the next decade, though those jobs aren’t necessarily filled in the U.S., according to Rystad Energy, a consulting firm on the firm. Much of the construction and maintenance work is being carried out outside the United States, despite the project locations off the American shores.
Demand for solar representatives increased 70% from 2019 to 2020 based on the number of job postings, and solar installers increased 56% from 2019 to 2020, according to Burning Glass. However, it is unclear whether the number of workers in such professions has increased or decreased as the pandemic has delayed many solar installation projects.
However, no one denies that it will be some time before the majority of those working in the fossil fuel industry find jobs in renewable energies.
“It will be up to companies to help their existing workers adapt,” said Sigelman.
Irina Ivanova from CBS News contributed to the coverage.