Release the Frackin’ Part II: Green Jobs Edition

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Last week, we posted an article titled “Release the Frackin’?” highlighting the profoundly positive economic impact of the Bakken oil rush in northwestern North Dakota. In that piece, it was asserted that the number of jobs created by emerging, eco-friendly, energy technologies—wind, solar, geothermal, et al—just isn’t at the level it needs to be if the green economy has a realistic chance of rivaling or replacing our allegedly primitive petro-economy, at least anytime soon.

Today, I wanted to provide just one example of what I meant. Unsurprisingly, it comes to us from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known by its street name, “the stimulus”. It concerns the two primary renewable sources cited in any inventory of market-ready green energy products: wind and solar. (Think of it: when discussing eco-friendly fuel options with friends, don’t “wind and solar” frequently top the list at first and second place, in either order?)

Section 1603 of the stimulus bill gave those crucial components of an envisioned clean energy future a potent shot in the arm. $9 billion worth of taxpayers’ money went to fund upwards of 23,000 different solar (a.k.a. photovoltaic or PV) and large wind projects. To be precise, 197 were large wind projects and 23,692 were PV projects.

Now, I’m no economist but I’m betting if you pump $9 billion into any similarly-sized sector of the economy—no matter the composite companies’ fundamentals—you’re bound to see signs of life. And we did. At least, at first.

According to the federal government’s own National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), between 2009 and 2011, an average of 52,000-75,000 “direct and indirect jobs per year” were involved in the manufacture, installation, operation and maintenance of solar and wind energy systems. If you optimistically give the government the high-side, 75,000 job estimate, against that taxpayer-funded (much of it borrowed) $9 billion pot, it averages out to $120,000 for each job created.

Sounds OK, right? Maybe not cheap, but also not ruinously expensive—certainly not the way Washington has been known to spend our money from time to time. But that should tip you off, right there.

There’s a problem: the vast majority of those jobs—43,000 to 66,000—were of the “indirect” variety. That means they were temporary workers, hired for the initial construction and set-up of these facilities and installations. But still, it looks like a respectable jobs gain for the fledgling green energy sector…until you read a little further into the NREL report’s findings. Spoiler alert: things get worse.

Rather than use the rhetorical “death by a thousand cuts” method so successfully employed against the stimulus bill by detractors, I’ll cut to the chase.

If you wanted to, say, meet everyone employed yearly in “direct” support of the operation and maintenance (O&M) of these systems, with favorable weather, you could do it over the course of a pleasant afternoon. The number of people hired to run these technological marvels adds up to a paltry 910. That comes out to $9.8 million per direct, lasting job. And even the term “lasting” is a bit debatable. PV and large wind systems are only estimated to last 20-30 years. Talk about renewable energy.

I should say, it’s not the completely laudable goal of a clean energy future for which I have contempt—that will be all to the good when it’s ready—it’s Washington’s pathetic attempts at centrally planning such a thing that strike me as naïve. When viewing the chasm between the massive economic benefits of private sector oil production in North Dakota and those of public sector wind and solar investments, there’s really no comparison to be had. One has worked wonders in people’s daily lives and one is barely perceptible.

$9 billion for 910 direct jobs. As I said before, you could shake that many people’s hands in a matter of hours, just bring your Purell. But, as a semi-humorous coda, I wouldn’t advise you really try to physically meet them. The government employees doing the NREL report certainly didn’t.

No, rather than verify any of these workers’ actual existence, they instead relied on ‘Jobs and Economic Development Impact’ computer models. (Yes, the acronym is JEDI. Good grief.) You’d think, since the stimulus’ goal was to find people work, they could’ve at least hired a few folks to go out and meet all 910 of those success stories. But then again, 910 being such a small number, maybe they were afraid it was a rounding error.