The coming scramble for clean energy workers

Ben Geman

The low-carbon energy growth envisioned in Democrats’ climate bill will come with a big challenge: finding enough trained workers to support it.

Driving the news: The plan — if signed into law — would finance more renewable power, clean energy equipment manufacturing, installation of home heat pumps and efficiency upgrades, electric vehicles, hydrogen development and much more.

Why it matters: This kind of scale-up would boost demand for workers in industries that would receive new or expanded tax subsidies and other support.

Threat level: The Princeton-led REPEAT Project, in their analysis of new projects the bill would spur, cautions that the ability to hire and train a clean energy workforce is among the various “difficult to model” constraints that may limit growth rates.

  • Philip Jordan of BW Research, a firm that studies workforce trends, said labor shortages are already a problem in clean energy industries.

What’s next: Solar Energy Industries Association Association (SEIA) president Abigail Ross Hopper said the group sees the solar and energy storage workforce quadrupling from its current level of slightly over 250,000.

  • “In this tight labor market, that’s a challenge — figuring out where do we get these employees? How do we train them, ensuring that they reflect the diversity of our nation?” she said on a call with reporters Monday.

The big picture: The clean energy research firm Energy Innovation estimates that jobs related to the bill would grow a lot in coming years, reaching 1.5 million created in 2030.

  • University of Massachusetts researchers estimate the bill’s mix of tax credits, grants, and loans — and the private sector capital they enable — will create an average of over 900,000 jobs annually over 10 years.
  • Their study was commissioned by the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of unions and environmental groups.

What they’re saying: Jordan, of BW Research, said the largest job gains will come in construction and installation of equipment like wind turbines, energy efficiency upgrades, transmission, battery storage, solar panels, and other areas.

  • “A lot of those are going to be unionized. And labor unions are actually quite good at rapidly meeting needs and expanding,” said Jordan, a VP with the firm that studies energy workforce trends.
  • But he cautions: “We are going to be creating a challenge when there’s lots of activity happening across lots of different types of infrastructure that need lots of the same types of workers.”

Zoom in: Hopper said one important provision in the bill is the larger tax credits available for projects that meet certain apprenticeship requirements.

  • She said they would give project developers incentives to train new workers.
  • Erika Symmonds, SEIA’s VP for equity and workforce development, said that in places where the solar industry is already very active, there are “templates or partnerships with employers for training that we’re going to need to multiply and replicate in other places.”
  • She said coordination between government, employers, schools and others will be important.
  • The bill also contains workforce development provisions, such as funding for state programs to train home energy efficiency and electrification contractors.

What we’re watching: How the new jobs are distributed, not just how many there are.

  • “There’s going to need to be investments to make sure that we’re not only creating the workforce that we need, but we’re also really targeting investments in disadvantaged communities to make sure that opportunities are available,” Jordan said.
  • The bill contains several provisions to address “environmental justice” — a term for addressing the greater environmental burdens that poor people and communities of color often face.
  • One of the provisions would create tax credits aimed specifically at solar projects located in low-income communities.

The bottom line: “I’m cautiously optimistic that that the federal government and states and municipalities will plan accordingly for what’s coming,” Jordan said.

Courtesy: (Axios)