On a bright Friday morning in February, Lisa Jackson, the new administrator of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, took the podium at the Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference in Washington. It was the closing session of the three-day conference, which was organized by the Minneapolis-based Blue Green Alliance, a partnership between labor and environmental organizations to stimulate job creation in energy and sustainability. “Green jobs are no longer a concept; they’re a reality,” Jackson said. “Green jobs are vital to the growth of our economy and a driving engine of recovery.” She received a standing ovation.
Jackson was speaking not only to a receptive audience, but to a receptive nation eager for solutions to the dual crises of an economic recession and global climate change. In February, the U.S. unemployment rate reached 8.1 percent, the highest level since 1983; 4.4 million jobs have been lost since the recession began. According to the Washington think tank, Center for American Progress, or CAP, construction-industry employment fell from 8 million in 2007 to 7.2 million in 2008. This year and next may bring additional losses; an economic forecast by Associated Builders and Contractors Inc., an Arlington, Va.-based trade association, indicates that office construction will be down between 15 and 25 percent this year.
Yet new investment in the so-called green-collar workforce could result in a dramatic turnaround for the green-building industry and related fields. In February, President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a $787 billion stimulus package that includes a $113.5 billion investment in clean energy and sustainability throughout the next two years. This includes funding for a smart grid, state and local investments in energy efficiency, improvements in rail transit, sustainable renovations and repairs to federal buildings, as well as a $500 million green-job training program through the Washington-based
U.S. Department of Labor, among other initiatives. The stimulus package is designed to save or create about 3.5 million new jobs. Some believe its initiatives could create up to 2 million new jobs in the green-collar sector alone. The nation’s workforce definitely is interested. The Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference attracted more than 2,700 attendees, and more than 4,000 people visited the related Green Jobs Expo that took place during the conference, according to
David Foster, executive director of the Blue Green Alliance. The alliance now is focused on working with state and local partners to implement the stimulus package. “Now that Obama’s stimulus package has been passed, if you don’t go on to make the next installments, you can easily fritter it away,” Foster says. “It’s important that we monitor and implement that down payment on the green economy.”
INVESTING IN A GREEN ECONOMY
Studies have shown that investments in sustainable technology, green building, renewable energy and other green initiatives have a major impact on the national economy. According to a report by the Boulder, Colo.-based American Solar Energy Society with research by Management Information Services, a Washington-based research firm, the renewable-energy and energy-efficiency industries represented more than 9 million jobs and more than $1 trillion in U.S. revenue in 2007. According to ASES, from 2006 to 2007, the renewable-energy industry grew three times faster than the overall U.S. economy with the solar-thermal, photovoltaic, biodiesel and ethanol sectors leading the way. Continued investment in these sectors could create as many as 37 million jobs by 2030, representing more than 17 percent of all anticipated U.S. employment, ASES says.
How are these jobs created? Last September, CAP released “Green Recovery: A Program to Create Good Jobs and Start Building a Low-Carbon Economy,” which was prepared by the Amherst- based University of Massachusetts Political Economy Research Institute, or PERI. The report outlined how a $100 billion investment in energy efficiency and sustainability would create 2 million jobs nationwide during a two-year period. Specifically, the investment would be channeled into the following primary strategies: building retrofits; mass transit and freight rail; development of a smart grid; and investments in solar, wind and next-generation biomass fuels. These strategies would be financed through tax credits, federal loan guarantees and direct spending.
The most obvious option for rapid green investment in communities, according to CAP, is a large-scale building retrofit program, which could help restore the 800,000 jobs lost in the construction industry in the past two years. Public building retrofits could be financed through federal Community Development Block Grants, which are distributed through the Washington-based U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or similar programs. Private building retrofits could take advantage of energy-efficiency or renewable-energy tax credits. Another option is to leverage the $5 billion for the Washingtonbased U.S. Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program provided in the stimulus act.
“All communities have buildings and most of them are operating inefficiently,” says Robert Pollin, co-director of PERI. “A large-scale program of retrofitting those buildings will create a lot of jobs in all communities and it also will drive down energy costs and reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere. This program creates jobs because it is more labor intensive. For each dollar spent, we spend more on jobs and less on machines and supplies.” Green jobs tend to stay in the U.S. too, Pollin says, rather than be outsourced overseas.
Already, several green-job initiatives are underway on national, state and local levels. In March, President Obama named Van Jones as a green-jobs advisor to the White House. Jones is the founder of Green for All, an Oakland, Calif.-based organization that advocates bringing environmental jobs to disadvantaged groups. The Washington-based American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the national union federation, recently launched a Center for Green Jobs, as well.
In New Mexico, the state legislature is considering a bill that would appropriate $1 million to a job-training incentive program that would aid green businesses in hiring a new workforce. Maryland’s state government has a goal to create 100,000 new green jobs by 2015 and has established new green-building requirements for its public buildings and public schools. The Maryland legislature also has authorized and appropriated
funding for a new Clean Energy Center, a corporation designed to promote the development of clean-energy technology, create jobs, and serve as a clearinghouse for research and development. A board of directors now is seeking staff and a headquarters location.
In Chicago, a $500,000 federal Community Economic Development grant provides below-market-rate financing through the Green Exchange—a green-business community—to qualifying green-business owners that hire low- income individuals. San Jose, Calif., has adopted a “Green Vision” plan to create 25,000 clean- technology jobs during the next 15 years, and the city already has added more than 1,500 such jobs since October 2007. “In a green economy, you’re going to need people to do solar installations, green building and so on,” says Collin O’Mara, San Jose’s clean-technology strategist.
“But a green carpenter is just going to replace another carpenter. Rather than just moving money around, we’re looking at how we bring new wealth into communities through green businesses and technology.” The city is using Community Development Block Grants to provide sustainable upgrades and retrofits to public buildings and has a goal to build or retrofit 50 million square feet (4.6 million m2) of third-party-certified green buildings.
“Rehabilitation creates more jobs than new construction because rehab is labor-intensive and not materials-intensive,” says Emily Wadhams, vice president of public policy for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Washington. “The jobs created when rehabilitating and retrofitting older buildings are, by their very nature, green jobs because reusing what you already have is about as green as it gets.”
Through the wide array of green jobs that soon may be created, it is clear the green-building industry may be poised for an unprecedented new wave in investment and, hopefully, prosperity. “Not long ago, people said you could have only one green or the other,” Jackson noted at the Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference. “You could have cash or you could have green policies, but you could not have both. I salute this conference and all of you for recognizing that green policies can create good jobs that are sustainable and can restore our economic future.”
WINDOWS TO THE FUTURE
One factor that helped draw the U.S. out of the Great Depression of the 1930s was the repurposing of the nation’s manufacturing toward a common goal: mobilizing to fight and win World War II. Many see a direct parallel between the economic revival of the 1940s and the potential green revolution of this century. By tapping into the same type of innovation and training, the U.S. can combat climate change while creating an entirely new and sustainable economy.
Already there are companies making this a reality by repurposing existing facilities and workforces as part of the new green-collar economy. Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Serious Materials, a manufacturer of sustainable building materials, such as windows, doors and eco-friendly drywall, recently acquired and re-opened the former Kensington Windows plant in Vandergrift, Pa. The factory closed in October 2008 and 150 jobs were lost. The reopened plant will produce a line of highly insulated, energy-saving, commercial and residential glass and full-frame windows that carry U-factors between 0.27 and 0.09 and R-values between R-3 and R-11. Serious Materials has hired a number of the plant’s laid-off workers and plans to hire an additional 100 workers as demand continues to increase.
Serious Materials also acquired the Republic Windows and Doors plant in Chicago. The plant received national headlines when the company filed for bankruptcy and closed its doors in December 2008, leaving 300 people unemployed before the holidays. Although Serious Materials has not received funds directly from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the allocated funds have created an increased demand for energy-efficient products and, consequently, a rise in orders, which has justified its expansion and hiring.
KIM O’CONNELL writes about architecture and sustainability from Arlington, Va.