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Beyond a Band-Aid: A Discussion Paper on Protecting Workers and Communities in the Great Energy Transition

By Arjun Makhijani, Ph.D - Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and Labor Network for Sustainability, June 10, 2016

This discussion paper presents a strategy for protecting workers and communities that may be threatened by the current and future transformation of the U.S. energy system. It is derived from the recognition that recent technological developments have made solar and wind energy, in combination with efficiency, cheaper than continued reliance on fossil fuels. An economical transition to an energy system that is nearly emissions-free is possible. The transition will provide enormous benefits, both in terms of climate protection and to workers and communities. The new energy system will be cleaner, and more resilient. Air pollution will decline. Solar and wind energy require essentially no water at a time when stress on water resources is becoming an ever larger economic and ecological issue.

Notwithstanding these benefits, significant issues of justice will be raised by the transition to a clean energy future. Even though large numbers of new jobs will be created, there is no guarantee that workers and communities which lose existing jobs will have them replaced by new ones. Indeed, unless proactive policies are in place, many current workers in fossil fuel industries will become unemployed. The communities they live in will be disrupted by loss of tax revenues.

Too often these downsides are disregarded because they seem insignificant compared to the benefits of energy transition and climate protection. But no job is insignificant if it is your job; and it will be of little comfort to low-income households if utility bills go down on average, but theirs do not.

Some proposals for transitioning to clean energy include assistance programs for workers who lose their jobs. But often these are little more than extended unemployment compensation and training for jobs that may or may not exist. Often they would be both too little and too late – more like putting a Band-Aid on an accident victim than a well-considered plan to keep people from getting run over. And they disregard some of the most devastating impacts of energy system change, like the loss of the local tax base that often funds critical community services like libraries and parks and provides supplemental money for schools and for fire and police departments.

“Beyond a Band-Aid: A Discussion Paper on Protecting Workers and Communities in the Great Energy Transition” proposes direct investments in local economies dependent on fossil fuel jobs before devastating economic disruption begins. And it proposes a strategy to protect low-income consumers from the effects of that tax increase. However, this discussion paper does not cover the more general longstanding problem of energy affordability for low-income households. Tens of millions of households face high home energy bills, often exceeding 10 or even 20 percent of income. IEER has examined this issue in detail in an energy justice study specific to Maryland and proposed a three-pronged solution that is broadly applicable: limiting bills of low-income households to 6 percent of gross income, increasing energy efficiency, and providing universal solar access to low-income households.

Read the report (PDF).

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