President Biden believes the 10 million clean-energy jobs he has pledged can help lead the U.S. economy out of COVID-19’s grip and help Earth snap its cycle of progressively warmer decades before it’s too late.
Jobs are his way of helping the climate-policy pill go down a little easier for his political opponents, many of whom count oil, natural gas or coal companies as their constituents and donors or who want the U.S. to proceed cautiously in trusting China with its carbon footprint. The president has made climate change a defining category of his administration.
Biden said as much again on Wednesday as part of a series of executive orders on climate change that are meant to move the U.S. further from traditional fossil-fuel energy reliance (and its traditionally well-paying if dangerous jobs) toward wind, solar and green hydrogen. He also wants to put more electric vehicles and their required charging stations on the road, including flipping the federal government’s fleet from gasoline to electric. And workers are needed for that buildout.
What exactly qualifies as a clean-energy job? Solar panel installers come to mind, but they’re not the only help-wanted posting to be found. Biden in fact had a job to pitch in his Wednesday speech: former fossil-fuel workers are in demand to cap old oil wells for a “prevailing wage,” he said more than once.
How much do clean-energy positions pay on average? Are these jobs on the rise all around the U.S. or limited to key regions? How much training is required? Can benefits be expected?
All key questions for an American workforce spooked by the pandemic and its sobering strain on the health-care system and job stability.
Clean energy jobs pay on the whole 25% better than the national median wage (including the majority of fossil fuel jobs), have higher unionization rates than the rest of the private sector, and are more likely to come with retirement and health-care benefits.
National nonpartisan business group E2 each year for the past five has put out a series of reports that start with Labor Department and Energy Department data. Researchers then mine those stats to look at where energy and technology and construction, for instance, might intersect in a way that counts as a “clean job,” as E2 phrases it.
Much of their actual count next includes a third-party researcher who tallies up clean-energy jobs through a survey of businesses. This might include HVAC repair by a technician who is up to speed with the latest energy-efficiency requirements. Or battery-storage experts, or savvy builders of homes, schools or offices that install LED lighting or visionaries who can help the entire power grid modernize. Not counted, for instance, or counted as a transportation job instead: recycling-truck driver.
When crunched this way and when the job count from a year of COVID-19 is excluded, clean energy outpaces the rest of the economy in job growth and now employs more Americans than those who work as teachers or real estate salespeople or farmers — and nearly three times as many people than work in fossil fuels, E2 says.
The research also shows that clean energy jobs pay on the whole 25% better than the national median wage (including the majority of fossil fuel jobs), have higher unionization rates than the rest of the private sector, and are more likely to come with retirement and health-care benefits.
Higher demand means higher pay
According to the E2 report, using Labor and Energy data, workers in renewable energy, energy efficiency, grid modernization and storage, clean fuels and clean vehicles earned a median hourly wage of $23.89 in 2019 compared with the national median wage of $19.14.
Solar energy workers earned $24.48 an hour, while wind and grid modernization jobs payed on average more than $25 an hour that year. Energy efficiency — the largest employer in the nation’s energy sector — supports a median hourly wage of $24.44, about 28% above the national median.
Workers in renewable energy, energy efficiency, grid modernization and storage, clean fuels and clean vehicles earned a median hourly wage of $23.89 in 2019 compared with the national median wage of $19.14.
Many clean energy jobs also paid better than fossil fuel jobs. Jobs in coal, natural gas and petroleum fuels paid $24.37 an hour, while solar and wind jobs combined for a $24.85 median hourly wage in 2019, the last year for data.
At the start of 2020, clean energy employment could still count about 3.3 million workers nationwide. By comparison, Energy Department data shows that a fewer 1.12 million people had jobs in the traditional fuels sector in 2018, its latest year for complete data, and that number was expected to have risen 3% in 2019, although the site didn’t have final numbers.
“Pipe fitters, welders, steel workers are needed on solar farms, so are sheet-metal workers and construction workers. Many of those positions are entry-level and go up from there as skills help workers differentiate. In fact, there’s often a shortage of skilled clean energy workers,” said Bob Keefe, executive director of E2. “Education is going to be key. We need community colleges to ramp up; we need guidance counselors nudging kids in this direction.”
While California remained the nation’s undisputed leader in clean energy jobs through 2019, states as diverse in size and structure as Texas and Massachusetts also are in the top 10 for clean energy jobs. Florida, North Carolina and Georgia continued to lead the South, while Michigan, Illinois and Ohio led the Midwest. On a per capita basis of statewide total employment, the Northeast claimed the top five spots with Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Delaware employing the largest share of clean energy jobs per capita in the country.
Not just the coasts
E2’s detailed state reports for California, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and other states can be found here and for 12 states in the Midwest at the Clean Jobs Midwest interactive website.
Solar jobs, as might be expected, are a steady contributor to the overall findings. But clean energy storage and grid modernization jobs increased 4% percent — faster than any other sector — while clean vehicle employment declined by about 2% in 2019 after a 17% jump in 2018. Energy efficiency (helping businesses and homes upgrade) remains the single biggest sector of the clean energy economy, growing over 2% in 2019 and adding the most net new jobs (54,000) across the entire energy sector.
Biden’s vision will have to include a rebound from jobs lost to the pandemic’s economic slowdown, Keefe and other researchers said. As of December, more than 429,000 clean energy workers were still without jobs since the pandemic began. Last year marked the first time that the clean energy sector ended a year with fewer workers than when it began, and with the smallest workforce since 2015.
And, the clean energy sector can also be more diligent in scooping up those displaced by trend shifts.
“Until now, we haven’t done enough to address the previously ignored issues of how to help displaced oil and gas workers and how to get more clean energy jobs in low income and communities of color,” said Keefe. Coupled with leveraging the market-changing power of federal procurement, this is the how you begin to build back better.”
Sensitivity around these shifts bubbled up recently as Biden rejoined the U.S. to the voluntary Paris Climate Agreement, but some of it seems to be a reluctance to think of clean-energy jobs as a home for traditional-energy workers.
‘There is some ignorance about what the job market looks like; we’re not in 1950. Energy isn’t just coal and oil and clean energy outruns fossil-fuel jobs 3:1.’
Sen. Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, home to oil and major wind farms, said he cared more about the people of Pittsburgh (and presumably its resource and industrial jobs) than the people Paris after Biden made his return to the international agreement. Climate activists volleyed their criticism at the senator, but so did the mayor of Pittsburgh, who may be growing weary of making the repeat point of how many renewable energy jobs have replaced decades-gone former traditional-energy jobs in Allegheny County. Read more on that spat.
“There is some ignorance about what the job market looks like; we’re not in 1950. Energy isn’t just coal and oil and clean energy outruns fossil-fuel jobs 3:1,” said Keefe.
E2 reports focused more on renewables and and clean-energy sector positions, as does presumably the thrust of Biden’s vision, then corporate and service-sector jobs that might have an environmental hook
Mastercard Inc., for instance, just this week was among the latest corporate pledgers to say it will try to hit the equivalent of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, an increasingly familiar refrain across major companies who will need more skilled workers to drive these efforts and clock progress and misses.