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Sustaining the Unsustainable: Why Renewable Energy Companies Are Not Climate Warriors

By Sean Sweeney - New Labor Forum, August 27, 2021

In the fight to address climate change, renewable energy companies are often assumed to be Jedi Knights. Valiantly struggling to save the planet, wind and solar interests are thought to be locked in mortal combat with large fossil fuel corporations that continue to mine, drill, and blast through the earth’s fragile ecosystems, dragging us all into a grim and sweaty dystopia.

In the United States and elsewhere, solar panels glitter on rooftops and in fields; turbines tower majestically over rural landscapes. The fact that, globally, the renewables sector continues to break records in terms of annual deployment levels is, for many, a source of considerable comfort. Acting like informational Xanax to ease widespread climate anxiety, news headlines reassure us that the costs of wind and solar power continue to fall, and therefore wind and solar is (or soon will be) “competitive” with energy from coal and gas. The transition to clean energy is, therefore, unstoppable.

By Any Means Necessary

Of course, wind and solar companies are not charities. They are, in a phrase, profit driven. They want to attract investment capital; they seek to build market share, and they all want to pay out dividends to shareholders. In this respect, renewable energy (and “clean tech”) companies are not fundamentally different from fossil fuel companies.

. . . [W]ind and solar companies are not charities. . . . In this respect, [they] are not fundamentally different from fossil fuel companies.

But so what? North-based environmental groups frequently point out that we have just a handful of years to start to make major reductions in emissions. Therefore, this is not a time, they insist, to split hairs or to make the perfect the enemy of the good. If electricity generation is the leading single source of CO2 pollution, then surely the more electrons generated by renewable sources of energy will mean fewer electrons being generated by fossil fuels. What more needs to be said?

But there are several reasons why, in their current role, renewable energy companies could be more part of the problem than they are part of the solution—which, if true, means a lot more has to be said. As we will see, they are beginning to squander their “social license” by being party to a “race to the bottom” dynamic that risks turning workers and many ordinary people against action on climate change. Equally serious, large wind and solar interests’ “me first” behavior is propping up a policy architecture that is sucking in large amounts of public money to make their private operations profitable.

They are sustaining a model of energy transition that has already shown itself to be incapable of meeting climate targets.[1] In so doing, these companies have not just gone over to the political dark side, they helped design it.

Combatting Climate Change, Reversing Inequality: A Climate Jobs Program for Texas

By Lara R. Skinner, J. Mijin Cha, Hunter Moskowitz, and Matt Phillips - ILR Worker Institute, Cornell, July 26, 2021

Texas is currently confronted by three major, intersecting crises: the COVID-19 public health pandemic and ensuing economic crisis; a growing crisis of inequality of income, wealth, race and power; and the worsening climate crisis, which continues to take its toll on Texans through hurricanes, major flood events, wildfires, debilitating heat waves and the significant economic cost of these extreme weather events. These crises both expose and deepen existing inequalities, disproportionately impacting working families, women, Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities, immigrants, and the most vulnerable in our society.

A well-designed recovery from the COVID-19 global health pandemic, however, can simultaneously tackle these intersecting crises. We can put people to work in high-quality, family- and community-sustaining careers, and we can build the 21st century infrastructure we need to tackle the climate crisis and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. Indeed, in order to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, it is essential that our economic recovery focus on developing a climate-friendly economy. Moreover, there are significant jobs and economic development opportunities related to building a clean energy economy. One study shows that 25 million jobs will be created in the U.S. over the next three decades by electrifying our building and transportation sectors, manufacturing electric vehicles and other low-carbon products, installing solar, wind and other renewables, making our homes and buildings highly-efficient, massively expanding and improving public transit, and much more.

Conversely, a clean, low-carbon economy built with low-wage, low-quality jobs will only exacerbate our current crisis of inequality. The new clean energy economy can support good jobs with good benefits and a pipeline for historically disadvantaged communities to high-quality, paid on-the-job training programs that lead to career advancement. Currently, the vast majority of energy efficiency, solar and wind work is non-union, and the work can be low-wage and low-quality, even as the safety requirements of solar electrical systems, for example, necesitate well-trained, highly-skilled workers.

Read the text (PDF).

‘It’s virtually impossible’: Transition to renewables at risk as oil and gas workers struggle to access green jobs

By Daisy Dunne - The Independent., June 22, 2021

The UK’s transition away from fossil fuels to renewable power could be put at risk by barriers facing oil and gas workers looking to move into green jobs, campaigners say.

A survey of 600 offshore workers found that those looking to move from the fossil fuel industry into green jobs in renewable power currently face costly training fees, discouraging them from making the transition.

Workers responding to the poll said they are routinely forced to pay out thousands of pounds of their own cash for training courses when moving between one employer and another in the offshore sector, some of which they have already paid to take part in for their current positions.

One 42-year-old who has worked in the oil and gas sector for 20 years said the cost of training could be putting workers off trying to move into green jobs.

“People really need help to make the transition because it’s just virtually impossible to do it yourself with the way things are at the moment,” he told The Independent. None of the oil and gas workers interviewed wanted to provide their names, for fear of losing work.

He added he was hoping to see more opportunities in renewable power as the country transitions away from using fossil fuels.

“For me, it’s about moving forward in my career and about moving forward for the environment at the same time. I’ve got two young children and I can see the changes that are happening to the climate, it’s obvious to me.”

One 43-year-old who has worked in the sector for 24 years said that he would “love” to see more opportunities in renewable energy.

“I was one of the people living in a bubble thinking ‘that might not be quite right’ when it came to climate change. But it’s really my kids that brought it home to me,” he told The Independent.

Clean energy jobs as a transition destination

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, June 15, 2021

Released on June 3, Responding to Automation: Building a Cleaner Future is a new analysis by the Conference Board of Canada, in partnership with the Future Skills Centre. It investigates the potential for clean energy jobs as a career transition destination for workers at high risk of losing their jobs because of automation. The clean energy occupations were identified from three areas: clean energy production, energy efficiency , and environmental management and the “rapid growth” jobs identified range from wind turbine technicians and power-line installers to industrial engineers, sheet metal workers, and geospatial information scientists. Based on interviews with clean economy experts, as well as the interview responses from over five hundred workers across Canada, the analysis identifies the structural barriers holding employers and workers back from transition:

  • Lack of consistent financial support for workers to reskill
  • Employer hesitancy to hire inexperienced workers
  • Current demand for relevant occupations which makes change less attractive
  • Lack of awareness around potential transition opportunities
  • Personal relocation barriers, such as high living costs in new cities, and family commitments.

None of the recommended actions to overcome the barriers include a role for unions, with the burden for action falling largely on the individual employee. Only summary information is presented as a web document, but this research is part of a larger focus on automation, so it can be hoped that a fuller report will be published – if so, the partner group, Future Skills, maintains a Research website where it will likely be available.

Other news about renewable energy jobs:

“Renewable Energy Boom Unleashes a War Over Talent for Green Jobs” appeared in Bloomberg Green News (June 8), describing shortages of skilled workers in renewable energy, mainly in the U.S.. It also summarizes a U.K. report which forecasts a large need for workers in the U.K. offshore industry, which is expected to be met by people transferring from the oil and gas sector.

A report by the Global Wind Energy Council forecasts a growth of 3.3 million wind jobs worldwide by 2025, and suggests that offshore wind energy jobs could offer a natural transition for workers dislocated from offshore oil and gas and marine engineering workers. According to the analysis, in 2020, there were approximately 550,000 wind energy workers in China, 260,00 in Brazil, 115,000 in the US and 63,000 in India. A related report, The Global Wind Workforce Outlook 2021-2025 forecasts a large training gap: the global wind industry will need to train over 480,000 people in the next five years to construct, install, operate and maintain the world’s growing onshore and offshore wind fleet. That report is available for download here (registration required), and is summarized in this press release.

And forthcoming: Clean Energy Canada will release its research on the clean energy labour market in Canada on June 17. Their last jobs report, The Fast Lane: Tracking the Energy Revolution, was released in 2019.

We can't mine our way out of climate crisis

By Hannibal Rhoades and Andy Whitmore - The Ecologist, May 25, 2021

A new and thorny environmental debate is breaking into mainstream conversations about climate breakdown.

We are going to need a vast supply of ‘transition minerals' like lithium and nickel - used in everything from wind turbines to solar panels to electric vehicles - if we are to papidly accelerate our switch to renewable energy.

Obtaining enough of these minerals while scaling up supply to meet rapidly growing demand represents a serious potential bottleneck in achieving global climate targets. How will we get these minerals and metals - and can we get them quickly enough?

Colonialism

This discussion has moved from activist and academic meeting rooms to the Washington DC, Beijing and Brussels. And mining corporations, ever-alert for a profit-making opportunity, have begun presenting themselves as our climate saviours.

Clean, green, sustainable, responsible mining, they say, will deliver the materials we need to meet our climate commitments. Policymakers have largely accepted the mining industry’s presentation of itself in these glowing terms.

Critical minerals task forces and industrial alliances are proliferating among wealthy nations. The aim is finding ways to secure supply. Governments around the world - both in the Global South and the North - are competing to attract foreign mining investment, often linked to the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

For anyone who cares about climate justice, this is not good news.

Industrial-scale mining is synonymous with a long history of colonialism, oppression and ecological devastation. The industry has an appalling human rights record to this day where frontline communities and workers are concerned.

American Jobs Plan Can Accelerate Solar Power in West Virginia

By Autumn Long and Ted Boettner - Ohio River Valley Institute, May 25, 2021

As a recent article in Forbes noted, the ‘dam has broken’ in West Virginia for solar power. While solar energy comprises less than 0.2 percent of electricity production in the state today, the market for solar energy is marching forward. Despite not having a renewable energy portfolio standard – which would require that utilities get a certain percentage of the electricity they sell in the state from renewable resources – like 30 other states, West Virginia lawmakers have started opening more doors for solar power. For example, state lawmakers this year legalized purchase power agreements (PPAs) to allow third parties to own and operate solar installations for customers while charging them a fixed rate that is typically lower that what the customer pays for electricity. In 2020, the West Virginia Legislature created a utility solar program that allows the state’s investor-owned utilities (FirstEnergy and American Electric Power) to produce as much as 200 megawatts of solar electricity each.

A flurry of new solar projects is now under development in the state. Toyota announced plans to spend $4.9 million to construct a 2.6-Megawatt solar array at its manufacturing plant in Buffalo, West Virginia. In October 2020, the WV Public Service Commission approved plans for a $90 million investment to build a 90-Megawatt solar farm in Raleigh County. Earlier this year, a 100-Megawatt utility-scale solar project was announced at the former Dupont Potomac River Works manufacturing facility in Berkeley County. And earlier this month, Nitro Construction Services acquired local solar installation company Revolt Energy, with plans to expand operation throughout the state on former coal mine sites. Revolt had recently installed a 487-kilowatt rooftop solar array (1,200 solar panels) at Nitro Construction Services’ headquarters in Putnam County.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), West Virginia ranks last (50th) in solar production in the nation with just 11.2 megawatts of installed solar power and less than $35 million in total solar investment in the state. Total solar jobs in the state were just 311 in the 4th quarter of 2020, with 18 solar companies operating in the state. Between 2012 and 2020, the number of solar jobs in West Virginia has grown by 241.

An October 2020 report by E2 found that jobs in solar pay close to what jobs in the coal, oil, and gas industries pay, $24.48 an hour (median) compared to $24.37 an hour (median), respectively. Approximately 10 percent of solar industry jobs are unionized, according to the Solar Foundation, which is above the national average and similar to levels found throughout the construction industry. Wage data for solar employment is not available for West Virginia, but it is likely below the national average.

There are a number of policy proposals at the federal level that could lead to significant acceleration in West Virginia’s solar industry. President Biden’s American Jobs Plan includes two key provisions, including a 10-year extension of the federal solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), which currently offers a 26% tax credit for solar installations, and an expanded direct cash payment in lieu of the ITC that allows solar owners to receive money even if they don’t have taxable income, much like a refundable tax credit. A cash grant option would ensure equitable benefits of the ITC are accessible to low- and moderate-income households, people with low tax liability, and nonprofit institutions such as schools, churches, local governments, and rural electric cooperatives.

Utility Workers Union and UCS estimate costs to transition U.S. coal miners and power plant workers in joint report

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, May 12, 2021

Hard on the heels of the April statement by the United Mine Workers Union, Preserving Coal Country: Keeping America’s coal miners, families and communities whole in an era of global energy transition, the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) jointly released a report with the Union of Concerned Scientists on May 4: Supporting the Nation’s Coal Workers and Communities in a Changing Energy Landscape. This report is described as “a call to action for thoughtful and intentional planning and comprehensive support for coal-dependent workers and communities across the nation.” The report estimates that in 2019, there were 52,804 workers in coal mining and 37,071 people employed at coal-fired power plants – and that eventually all will lose their jobs as coal gives way to cleaner energy sources. Like the United Mine Workers, the report acknowledges that the energy shift is already underway, and “rather than offer false hope for reinvigorated coal markets, we must acknowledge that thoughtful and intentional planning and comprehensive support are critical to honoring the workers and communities that have sacrificed so much to build this country.”

Specifically, the report calls for a minimum level of support for workers of five years of wage replacement, health coverage, continued employer contributions to retirement funds or pension plans, and tuition and job placement assistance. The cost estimates of such supports are pegged at $33 billion over 25 years and $83 billion over 15 years —and do not factor in additional costs such as health benefits for workers suffering black lung disease, or mine clean-up costs. The report states: “we must ensure that coal companies and utilities are held liable for the costs to the greatest extent possible before saddling taxpayers with the bill.” Neither do the cost estimates include the recognized needs for community supports such as programs to diversify the economies, or support to ensure that essential services such as fire, police and education are supported, despite the diminished tax base. 

The report points to the precedents set by Canada’s Task Force on Just Transition for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities ( 2018), the German Commission on Growth, Structural Change and Employment (2019), as well as the New Mexico Energy Transition Act 2019 and the Colorado Just Transition Action Plan in 2020. The 12-page report, Supporting the Nation’s Coal Workers and Communities in a Changing Energy Landscape was accompanied by a Technical Report, and summarized in a UCS Blog which highlights the situation in Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota. A 2018 report from UCS Soot to Solar also examined Illinois.

Covid-19 causes decline in solar, clean energy jobs in the U.S.

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, May 10, 2021

The 11th annual National Solar Jobs Census was released by the U.S. Solar Energy Industries Association on May 6, reporting that 231,474 people worked across all sectors of the industry in 2020 – a 6.7% decrease from 2019. The decrease in jobs is attributed to the impacts of Covid-19, as well as an increase in labour productivity – up 19% in the residential sector, 2% in the non-residential sector and 32% in the utility-scale sector. Thus, despite employing fewer workers, the solar industry installed record levels of solar capacity in 2020, with 73% of installations in “ Utility-scale installations”.

According to the 2020 Solar Jobs Census, 10.3% of solar workers in the U.S. are unionized, above the national average and compared to 12.7% of all construction trades. The report offers details about demographic, geographic, and labour market data – for example, showing an improvement in diversity in the workforce. Since 2015, it reports a 39% increase for women, 92% increase for Hispanic or Latino workers, 18% increase for Asian American and Pacific Islander workers, and a 73% increase for Black or African American workers. Wages for benchmark solar occupations are provided, showing levels similar to, and often higher than, wages for similar occupations in other industries.

The 2020 Solar Jobs Census defines a solar worker as anyone who spends more than 50% of their working time in solar-related activities. It is a joint publication of the Solar Energy Industries Association, the Solar Foundation, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council and BW Research Partnership. It uses publicly available data from the 2021 U.S. Energy and Employment Report (USEER), produced by BW Research Partnership, the Energy Futures Initiative (EFI), and the National Association of State Energy Officials (NASEO). Solar is included in their reports, which cover the broader energy industry (The U.S. 2020 Energy & Employment Report and the supplementary report, Wages Benefits and Change) .

The reported decrease in solar jobs is also consistent with the message in Clean Jobs America 2021 , published by E2 Consultants in April. That report found a decrease in total clean energy jobs from 3.36 million in 2019 to 3 million at the end of 2020, although despite the decline, the report states: “clean energy remains the biggest job creator across America’s energy sector, employing nearly three times as many workers as work in fossil fuel extraction and generation.” The report includes renewable energy, energy efficiency, and electric vehicle manufacturing in their coverage.

Is clean energy ready for Biden's union crusade?

By David Ferris - E&E News, March 9, 2021

One evening in September 2018, Lucas Franco parked on the shoulder of a dirt road in the Minnesota cornfields. He examined the passing cars, especially their license plates.

The trucks and SUVs were rolling off the construction site of a wind farm called Stoneray. Upon spying each plate, Franco noted its origin state and entered it into a spreadsheet on his laptop. Utah, Florida, South Carolina, Texas.

Franco was not a police officer or a private investigator, but a Ph.D. candidate in political science trying to solve a mystery. His employer, the Minnesota-North Dakota chapter of the Laborers' International Union of North America, wanted to know where these workers were coming from.

For several years, wind farms like Stoneray had been rising in southern Minnesota, with each energy project promising to create hundreds of jobs. But developers rarely called the Laborers' Local 563 union hall in Minneapolis. Instead, the Laborers' and the state's other construction unions suspected that wind companies were importing workers from other states and denying the income to Minnesotans.

"We kept asking questions" of the developers about their workforce, said Kevin Pranis, 49, the local's marketing manager and Franco's boss. "But they would just fob us off."

The data on Franco's laptop changed that. It would, in fact, form the basis of the most successful labor actions in the short history of American renewable energy.

This Minnesota episode is relevant now because of the union sympathies of the new U.S. president, Joe Biden. Biden launched his campaign two years ago in a Teamsters union hall in Pittsburgh. Last week, he posted a video implicitly cheering on a unionization effort at an Amazon.com Inc. warehouse in Alabama, which is being closely watched to see whether a new, union-loving president could revive a labor movement long in decline.

Biden has made no secret of his intention to bring this rare brand of presidential labor activism to clean energy...

Read the rest here.

Texas: grids, blackouts, and green new deals

By Jonathan Neale - The Ecologist, February 17, 2021

The failure of the electricity grid in Texas, USA, and the rolling blackouts in the Midwest, are one more consequence of climate breakdown.

The root problem is that the Arctic is growing warmer. As it does so, paradoxically, there is less of a barrier preventing very cold weather in the far north from moving south. This extremely cold weather then blankets cities and downs where people live. 

Download Fight the Fire for free now.

The electricity grid in Texas simply cannot supply enough power for all the extra demands on heating. This is a problem what will grow much worse, and not just in Texas.

Complexity

But Fox News and the Governor of Texas are blaming the failure of the grid on the Green New Deal and renewable energy. That’s silly.

There is no Green New Deal in Texas. There are some wind turbines, that have apparently frozen. But the wind turbines in Canada and Antarctica have not frozen.

This is a problem caused by fossil fuels and privatized energy, not wind trubines.

But environmentalists have to be careful here, and we have to be up to speed on the full complexity of what a Green New Deal will mean for electricity grids.

That’s why The Ecologist is posting here the chapter on supergrids from my new book, Fight the Fire: Green New Deals and Global Climate Jobs.

Power

In what follows, I explain the difficulties in integrating 100 percent renewable energy into the grid, and how it can be done. I also show why that will be impossible if renewable energy and electricity supply are owned by private corporations.

The chapter is about supergrids around the world, but many of the examples come from the United States.

A rewired world does not mean that all energy will come from renewables. But it does mean that most energy will come from electricity, and all that electricity will come from renewables.

That will not be an easy thing to construct. We will need new national and international supergrids to integrate all these new kinds of power into new electrical supply systems. These will be qualitatively new undertakings.

The challenge of mixing together power from renewable energy is different in kind from mixing together energy from fossil fuels – and far more complex.

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