photo: Todd Woody
When Green Wombat offered up as a “talking point” the observation that the wind industry now employs more people than coal mining, the post set off some vociferous chatter in the blogosphere, fueled in part by my inadvertent error of referring to the “coal industry” in a subsequent reference rather than “coal mining.”
Eoin O’Carroll at the The Christian Science Monitor‘s Bright Green Blog called the comparison between 85,000 wind industry jobs and 81,000 coal mining jobs “bogus,” citing sources pegging direct industry-wide employment in coal at 136,000 to 174,000. Other commentators pointed out that wind power currently provides only about 1-2% of the United States’ electricity while coal supplies around 49%, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Fair enough. But let’s add some context. As Salon‘s Andrew Leonard pointed out, “The key takeaway shouldn’t be employment, but growth rates.” Employment in the wind industry grew 70% between 2007 and 2008 as a result of a 50% jump in the amount of installed wind capacity in the United States last year. And this number bears repeating: 42% of all new U.S. electricity generation in 2008 came from wind farms, the equivalent of building 14 600-megawatt coal-fired power plants – without the environmental devastation that comes from strip-mining and releasing tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That extraordinary growth in wind power was, until the recession hit, reviving abandoned factories in the industrial Midwest as European turbine makers and their suppliers set up shop close to what has become the world’s largest wind market.
While wind produces a tiny percentage of the country’s total electricity today, the U.S. does not have a national power grid and energy generation varies widely by state. (For instance, in-state coal-fired power plants supplied 86% of Ohio’s electricity in 2006, according to the Energy Department, but only 1.1% of California’s – though the Golden State obtains about 20% of its electricity from out-of-state coal plants, a practice being phased out by its global warming law).
In Texas, wind accounts for 4.9% of the state’s electricity generation, according to the state grid operator. Last week, Texas regulators announced they would invest $5 billion to expand transmission lines to bring wind power from remote west Texas wind farms to big cities like Dallas and Houston. That $5 billion, no doubt, will also generate quite a few green jobs and trigger even more wind development once the credit crunch eases.
Jon Wellinghoff, the new acting chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, has identified the Great Plains – dubbed the Saudi Arabia of wind – as the prime candidate for a massive power grid project to connect the region’s wind farms to metropolitan regions currently dependent on coal-fired power. Again, such an initiative would generate thousands of jobs. (A 2008 Department of Energy report found that if such transmission hurdles were overcome the nation could obtain as much as 20% of its electricity from wind farms.)
Obviously, coal is not going away any time soon. (And those wind turbines are made of steel, after all.) But with the Obama administration willing to spend billions on a smart power grid to expand green energy production and half the states mandating renewable energy targets – not to mention a looming national cap-and-trade system that would assign a price to the environmental cost of coal-fired electricity – it seems clear which industry will be generating the jobs of the future.