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Archive for the ‘green collar jobs’ Category

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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.

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photo: Todd Woody

Here’s a talking point in the green jobs debate: The wind industry now employs more people than coal mining in the United States.

Wind industry jobs jumped to 85,000 in 2008, a 70% increase from the previous year, according to a report released Tuesday from the American Wind Energy Association. In contrast, the coal industry mining employs about 81,000 workers. (Those figures are from a 2007 U.S. Department of Energy report but coal employment has remained steady in recent years though it’s down by nearly 50% since 1986.) Wind industry employment includes 13,000 manufacturing jobs concentrated in regions of the country hard hit by the deindustrialization of the past two decades.

The big spike in wind jobs was a result of a record-setting 50% increase in installed wind capacity, with 8,358 megawatts coming online in 2008 (enough to power some 2 million homes).  That’s a third of the nation’s total 25,170 megawatts of wind power generation. Wind farms generating more than 4,000 megawatts of electricity were completed in the last three months of 2008 alone.

Another sign that wind power is no longer a niche green energy play: Wind accounted for 42% of all new electricity generation installed last year in the U.S. Power, literally, is shifting from the east to west, to the wind belt of the Midwest, west Texas and the West Coast. Texas continues to lead the country, with 7,116 megawatts of wind capacity but Iowa in 2008 overtook California for the No. 2 spot, with 2,790 megawatts of wind generation. Other new wind powers include Oregon, Minnesota, Colorado and Washington state.

But last year’s record is unlikely to be repeated in 2009 as the global credit crisis delays or scuttles new projects because developers are unable to secure financing for wind farms. Layoffs have already hit turbine makers like Clipper Windpower and Gamesa as well as companies that produce turbine towers, blades and other components.

The Obama administration’s $825 billion stimulus package includes a three-year extension of a key production tax credit that has spurred the wind industry’s expansion. But given the dearth of investors with tax liabilities willing to invest in wind projects in exchange for the credits, the stimulus is unlikely to be stimulating to the industry unless the tax credit is made refundable to developers.

The U.S. wind industry is dominated by European wind developers and turbine makers – General Electric (GE) and Clipper are the only two domestic turbine manufacturers – and those companies’ fortunes rise and fall with the global economy.  As the U.S. market has boomed, European companies have been moving production close to their customers – the percentage of domestically manufactured wind turbine components rose from 30% to 50% between 2005 and 2008, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

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photo: Todd Woody

As President Barack Obama embraced renewable energy in his inaugural speech Tuesday, Clipper Windpower laid off 90 employees – about 11% of its workforce – as the global financial crisis throws a spanner in the once-booming wind industry.

The Carpinteria, Calif.-based turbine maker has seen business slow as customers delay existing orders and put off new ones because they cannot obtain financing for wind farms, Clipper CEO Doug Pertz told Green Wombat.

“In the short-term, the impact to Clipper is a reduction in 2009 turbine production,” he said. “We know that 2009 will be a challenging year, however, remain optimistic that this economic situation is temporary.  We trust that the new Obama administration will, in the not-too-distant future, enact policy to enable better financing options for wind energy projects and aggressively promote the growth of renewable energy development.”

Clipper is one of only two U.S.-owned turbine makers – the other being General Electric (GE) – in an industry dominated by European manufacturers and wind farm developers.

Like their counterparts in the solar industry – which also has been shedding workers in recent weeks – wind companies depend on tax incentives to lure investors. But with traditional investment banks all but extinct on Wall Street and other investors hoarding their cash, there’s been little appetite of late for investing in so-called tax equity partnerships to provide funding for massive wind farms or solar power plants.

Pertz said Clipper’s production is down 20% from the 750 megawatts worth of turbines it manufactured in 2008 and that he expects double-digit declines for 2009. “Customers with large balance sheets are being much more conservative and smaller independent wind developers are seeing that it is much more difficult to obtain tax-equity financing,” he noted.

Wind and solar industry lobbyists are pushing Congress to make the investment tax credit and the production tax credit refundable so those companies that don’t have tax liabilities can trade the credits for cash that can be used to finance renewable energy projects.

Founded in 2001 by wind industry veteran James Dehlsen – his first wind company is now owned by GE –  Clipper makes a 2.5-megawatt turbine called the Liberty at its Cedar Rapids, Iowa, factory that powers wind farms built by FPL (FPL) and BP (BP). Other customers include Queen Elizabeth II, who bought the prototype of a 10-megawatt offshore turbine being developed by Clipper in the U.K.

One bright spot for the wind industry, said Pertz, is an expected move by well-capitalized utilities to take ownership stakes in wind farms if a national standard is enacted requiring them to obtain a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources.

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Amid the daily drumbeat of mass layoffs, here’s some sunny news: Solar startup Suniva cut the ribbon Thursday on a photovoltaic cell factory outside Atlanta.

As solar factories go, Suniva’s plant – the first such facility in the Southeast – is relatively small, making 32 megawatts of solar cells annually until  production is fully ramped up to 175 megawatts in 2010. But the factory will create 100 green collar jobs and it follows the opening of  SolarWorld’s new solar cell fab outside Portland, Ore., that will  produce 500 megawatts’ worth of solar cells, and thin-film solar startup HelioVolt’s factory in Austin. Meanwhile, Solyndra, a Silicon Valley thin-film solar startup, is expanding its production facilities while Bay Area rival OptiSolar is building a Sacramento factory that will employ 1,000 workers to produce solar cells for the power plant the company is building for utility PG&E (PCG). (Leading thin-film solar company First Solar (FSLR) operates a factory in Ohio as well as plants in Malaysia.) But Chinese solar giant Suntech (STP) last week said it has put plans for U.S. factories on hold due to the credit crunch.

The Suniva grand opening comes on a good news-bad news day for the solar industry. On one hand, President-elect Barack Obama is expected to nominate alternative energy proponent and Nobel laureate Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, as Secretary of Energy. But the solar industry faces a tough year ahead. On Thursday, research firm New Energy Finance, echoing other analysts, predicted prices for polysilicon – the base material of conventional solar cells – would fall 30% in 2009. That’s bad news for conventional solar cell makers like SunPower (SPWRA) and Suntech if they’ve locked in silicon supplies at higher prices but provides an opening for further growth for thin-film solar companies that make solar cells that use little or no polysilicon.

“We expect to see significant drops in the price of modules next year,” wrote New Energy Finance CEO Michael Liebreich.  “Any manufacturer who does not have access to cheap silicon and who has not focused on manufacturing costs is going to be in trouble. The big shake-out is about to begin. The next two years will change the economics of PV electricity out of recognition.”

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solana1The credit crunch is taking a toll on the United States’ nascent solar industry, scuttling big renewable energy projects and curtailing expansion plans, solar executives said Wednesday as they proposed the inclusion of green incentives in the Obama economic stimulus plan.

Spanish energy giant Abengoa, for instance, has put on hold plans to build its 280-megawatt Solana solar power plant outside Phoenix to supply electricity to utility Arizona Public Service (PNW) in a $4 billion deal, said Fred Morse, senior advisor to Abengoa Solar.

“We have serious issues getting financing,” said Morse during a conference call held by the Solar Energy Industries Association. Congress in October passed a 30% investment tax credit crucial to the solar industry. But Wall Street’s meltdown has scared off investors that normally would finance large solar projects in exchange for the tax credits.

“The investment tax credit was passed but unfortunately there was no ‘I’ in the ITC,” Morse added. “We have trouble finding tax-equity investors, the financing is gone.”

Suntech America president Roger Efird said that after Congress passed the investment tax credit, the Chinese solar cell maker immediately doubled its sales force in the U.S. That expansion has now hit a wall.

“Plans to double our sales force by the end of 2009 are currently on hold, primarily because business has slowed in fourth quarter because of the credit crunch,” he said. “We had been considering establishing manufacturing in the U.S. The timing of those plans depend on the growth of the market in the U.S. and how long it takes to get through this downturn.”  Suntech’s (STP) stock – like those of rivals SunPower (SPWRA) and First Solar (FSLR) – has been walloped by the market chaos and is down 94% from its 52-week high.

Ron Kenedi of Sharp Solar said the dealers and installers who buy the Japanese solar module maker’s products have had a hard time securing credit to finance their operations.

In response, the solar industry’s trade group on Wednesday proposed that the federal government cut through the credit crunch by adopting tax and investment policies to stimulate the solar sector and create 1 million jobs.

The centerpiece of the plan is a $10 billion program to install 4,000 megawatts of solar energy on federal buildings and at military installations. “The Department of Defense alone could jump start this industry and it could have widespread impact on the use of solar, similar to what it did for the Internet,” said Nancy Bacon, an executive with Michigan thin-film solar cell maker Energy Conversion Devices (ENER).

Bacon noted that the federal government is the world’s largest utility customer, spending $5.6 billion annually on electricity. “This would create 350,000 sustainable jobs,” she said. “The solar industry is ready to deploy these systems immediately.”

The Solar Energy Industries Association also wants Congress to enact a 30% tax refundable tax credit for the purchase of solar manufacturing equipment to encourage solar companies to build their factories in the U.S. That would result in an estimated 315,000 new jobs. Making the current investment tax credit refundable would also help loosen up financing for solar projects, the association said.

Other policies on the SEIA agenda:

  • Establishment of a national Renewable Portfolio Standard that would require states to obtain a minimum of 10% of their electricity from green sources by 2012 and 25% by 2025, with 30% of the total coming from solar.
  • Rapid deployment of new transmission lines to connect cities to remote areas where wind and solar power is typically produced.
  • Expedited approval of solar power plant projects on federal land in the Southwest.
  • Creation of an Office of Renewable Energy in President-elect Obama’s office to coordinate the procurement and permitting of solar power and transmission lines.

“We are working closely with the Obama energy transition team and have been in contact with Congress,” said SEIA president Rhone Resch. “These polices are exactly the kind of shot in the arm our economy needs today.”

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deutsche-bank-green-bankPresident-elect Barack Obama may dismiss notions of a New New Deal to stave off a Great Depression 2.0, but signs of a Rooseveltian shift in thinking abound.

Case in point: This week, Deutsche Bank called for the establishment of a “national infrastructure bank” to create “green” jobs, fight global warming and ensure U.S.  energy independence by investing in an array of projects – from energy efficiency to upgrading the Eisenhower-era power grid to large-scale renewable energy power plants.

The idea of a national infrastructure bank is not new – versions have been proposed by Obama and Senators Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to finance the repair of the nation’s crumbling highways, water systems and cities. Deutsche’s twist is to give such an institution a green mission.

“We believe this confluence opens up an historic opportunity for a new U.S. administration and Congress to take a global leadership position on the issue of the environment and energy security, while addressing current financial problems,”  wrote Deutsche Bank’s Climate Change Investment Research team in its report.

“We’re calling for the national infrastructure bank to go green because in the long run it will save us money and create more jobs,” Deutsche senior investment analyst Bruce Kahn told Green Wombat.

He says Deutsche Bank is not putting a dollar figure on the capitalization of such bank, but the report notes others have suggested a $100 billion investment would generate two million green jobs.

Deutsche Bank (DB) recommends a green infrastructure bank focus on energy efficiency, the transmission grid, renewable energy and public transportation. The green bank would dispense federal funding, make grants to states and cities, issue loans to governments and companies, underwrite public and private bonds, and provide tax credits for public and private projects.

In Deutsche Bank’s analysis, the biggest bang for the buck would come from a massive retrofit program to increase the energy efficiency of the nation’s commercial buildings and make sure the 1.8 million new homes constructed every year are green. Buildings consume as much as 50% of the electricity generated in urban areas and emit about 20% of the country’s greenhouse gases. The work of installing energy-efficient heating, lighting and air conditioning systems is labor intensive and would spike demand for green building materials.

Upgrading and digitizing the power grid to create a “transmission super highway” to bring solar and wind energy from the deserts and Great Plains to the cities could generate as many as 500,000 jobs, according to an estimate by the American Wind Energy Association. The price tag to modernize the grid: $450 billion over the next 15 years by New Energy Finance’s estimate.

One area given short shrift by the Deutsche report is how a green infrastructure bank would support large-scale renewable energy power plants. Wind farms and solar power stations typically require billions of dollars in financing to get built and rely on investors buying the tax credits the projects generate. Those investors have been in short supply thanks to the credit crunch and the collapse of the Wall Street banks that often put up the cash for such deals.

“Everyone’s lost money, there’s no tax equity to be had,”  says Kahn. “But we expect that tax credit equity investors will return to the market, not next month, but in the next couple of years.” Kahn says an infrastructure bank could support green energy power plant projects through loans and loan guarantees.

A green bank would also be good business for Deutsche Bank.

“We have large number of investments at stake, current investments in all these sectors,” says Kahn. “It provides an investment opportunity as this infrastructure bank would not be able to exist all on its own. It would need private capital to invest alongside it.”

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The wind, solar and geothermal industries have wasted no time pressing the incoming Obama administration to implement an alternative energy agenda to spur investment and create jobs.

During a conference call Thursday, the leaders of the Solar Energy Industries Association, American Wind Energy Association and other trade groups lobbied for a plethora of legislation and policy initiatives. None of these proposals are new, but given Barack Obama’s campaign promises to promote alternative energy and the strengthened Democratic majority in Congress, the industry has the best chance in many years of seeing this wish list made real.

  • A five-year extension of the production tax credit for the wind industry (it currently has to be renewed every year) to remove uncertainty for investors.
  • A major infrastructure program to upgrade the transmission grid so wind, solar and geothermal energy can be transmitted from the remote areas where it is produced to major cities. Obama advisor Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google (GOOG), recently joined with General Electric (GE) chief Jeff Immelt to launch a joint initiative to develop such smart grid technology as well as push for policy changes in Washington to allow the widespread deployment of renewable energy by rebuilding the nation’s transmission system.
  • Impose a national “renewable portfolio standard” that would mandate that utilities obtain a minimum 10% of their electricity from green sources by 2012 and at least 25% by 2020. Two-thirds of the states currently impose variations of such requirements.
  • Mandate that the federal government – the nation’s single largest consumer of electricity – obtain more energy from renewable sources.
  • Enact a cap-and-trade carbon market.

“If the administration and Congress can quickly implement these policies, renewable energy growth will help turn around the economic decline while at the same time addressing some of our most pressing national security and environmental problems,” the green energy trade groups said in a joint statement.

No doubt those measures are crucial to spurring development of renewable energy and creating green collar jobs. But the major obstacle confronting the alt energy industry right now is the credit crunch that is choking off financing for big wind and solar projects and scaring away investors from more cutting-edge but potentially promising green technologies.

A focus by President Obama and Congress on restoring confidence in the financial system will most likely do the most for green investment as well as restore luster to battered renewable energy stocks like First Solar (FSLR), SunPower (SPWRA) and Suntech (STP).

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