A recent study outlining a “roadmap” for transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy would cause a significant loss of permanent jobs, based on a review by Energy In Depth. The research has been widely cited by anti-fossil fuel activists, whose advocacy includes the supposed job benefits of replacing oil, natural gas, and coal with renewable technologies like wind and solar.
The study, whose lead author is Stanford University professor Mark Jacobson, was published last summer in the journal Energy & Environmental Science. The authors attempted to model how the United States could transition away from coal, oil, natural gas, and even nuclear to rely solely on wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, and tidal and wave energy by 2050. Jacobson has produced similar research for individual states, and has long advocated for a renewables-only energy system.
Jacobson claims that the nationwide transition would create more jobs than it would destroy, while generating several other economic and environmental benefits. As he noted in a release from last summer:
“When you account for the health and climate costs – as well as the rising price of fossil fuels – wind, water and solar are half the cost of conventional systems… A conversion of this scale would also create jobs, stabilize fuel prices, reduce pollution-related health problems and eliminate emissions from the United States. There is very little downside to a conversion, at least based on this science.” (emphasis added)
In addition to his peer-reviewed study, Jacobson also directs his website’s readers to visit the Solutions Project, an advocacy group at which Jacobson serves on the Board of Directors. A graphic from the Solution Project claims that a transition to 100 percent renewable energy in the United States will create millions of new jobs. A separate graphic allows users to see the jobs that would be created in each of the 50 states.
But according to the supporting data that Jacobson published on his website, the transition would actually destroy nearly four million long-term jobs nationwide, with a net loss – incorporating the permanent job gains from renewables and energy efficiency – of more than 1.2 million jobs.
Focus on Permanent Jobs
Advocates of Jacobson’s work have placed heavy emphasis on job creation, recognizing that citing the economic benefits of banning fossil fuels could potentially attract new supporters. When leaders from San Diego, Calif., announced recently that they would be transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy, the New York Times reported the city’s Republican mayor “sold the plan to a conservative base in part by saying that transforming the electric grid would drive the economy and create jobs.”
In a 2013 interview with Scientific American, Jacobson was asked how he would “sell” his 100 percent renewables plan (at the time, he was only looking at data for New York). Jacobson claimed that “more jobs would be created than lost” by transitioning entirely to renewables.
In a recent interview with CNN, Jacobson said three times that transitioning the world entirely to renewables would create “22 million more jobs” than it would destroy. He even conceded that “one does not need to believe in climate change to want to transition energy,” due to the supposed economic benefits.
The Solutions Project’s website also emphasizes job growth from “clean energy and efficiency.”
“Policy change and stronger relationships at the state-level are key to ensuring all people can access the jobs, household budget, and health benefits of clean energy and efficiency.” (emphasis added)
But buried toward the end of a dense Excel sheet with over 60 tabs, located on a dedicated page within a faculty website, Jacobson quantifies the exact number of job losses by sector from transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy. In transportation, more than 2.4 million men and women would be put out of work. Over 800,000 people working to produce oil and natural gas would lose their jobs. Nearly 90,000 jobs connected to coal mining would be wiped out. All told, more than 3.8 million jobs would be lost, far more than the nearly 2.6 million long-term jobs that Jacobson has estimated would be created.
In a highlighted column entitled “Net Long Term Jobs,” Jacobson’s table shows a negative 1,284,030.
The job losses, however, are not equally distributed across the country. Many states, even those with a “green” reputation, would experience tens if not hundreds of thousands of lost permanent jobs.
- California: 221,738 long-term jobs lost
- New York: 80,113 permanent jobs lost
- Hawaii: 9,013 permanent jobs lost
- Vermont: 4,584 long-term jobs lost
Earlier this year, Hawaii announced a plan to go 100 percent renewable by 2050, the same implementation timeline that Jacobson estimates will cost the state nearly 10,000 permanent jobs. In 2013, Bloomberg News estimated that a 100 percent renewables plan for just the state of New York would cost about $382 billion.
Other states would also see huge losses. Texas, the country’s largest oil and natural gas producer, would shed more than a quarter million long-term jobs by transitioning to 100 percent renewables. In Wyoming, the largest coal producing state, the transition would destroy more than 32,000 jobs connected to the energy sector.
Touted by Environmentalists
For years, so-called “climate activists” have struggled to sell their campaign to the general public, which is far more concerned about jobs and the economy than climate change. A recent poll found that 63 percent of Americans believe job creation is more important than trying to stop global warming, which the pollster noted was “consistent with regular surveying for over two years now.” Concerns about job losses from banning fracking have even exacerbated a growing divide between greens and labor unions, the latter of which often defend the economic growth resulting from oil and natural gas development.
But Jacobson’s claims about net job creation have given environmentalists a chance to sell their vision on economic terms, even if the details contradict that message.
“In GASLAND PART ll, Fox also argues that new choices must be made about where the nation gets its energy. He talks to Stanford professor Mark Jacobson, who argues that the U.S. could stop drilling for coal, oil and natural gas altogether and bundle together the renewable resources of wind, high-concentrated solar power, geothermal power, hydroelectric power and tidal power to handle the country’s current energy needs.” (emphasis added)
In announcing his own “Solutions Grassroots Tour” in September 2014, Fox said: “Renewable energy can benefit culture and democracy as well as being the next major economic development force.” The tour, according to Fox, was about raising awareness that “we can run the planet on 100 percent renewable energy.”
Other prominent environmental groups have similarly embraced Jacobson’s work, placing heavy emphasis on his economic claims.
The Sierra Club has used Jacobson’s research to push for a transition to 100 percent renewables, arguing it would yield “positive environmental, social, and economic benefits,” including “new jobs and sources of revenue.” An Earthworks staffer recently claimed that wind and solar “create more jobs” than fossil fuels. The group 350.org, co-founded by environmental activist Bill McKibben, encouraged its San Francisco-area supporters to “promote legislation based on Mark Jacobson’s California Plan” for 100 percent renewables.
Greenpeace has also touted a 100 percent renewables plan as “the answer to alarming climate science,” referencing Jacobson’s claim that it will “eliminate most all air pollution and global warming, create jobs, and provide energy stability and energy price stability.”
In an op-ed declaring that “an economy based on renewable energy is both economically and technically feasible,” Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch, cited Jacobson’s plan explicitly. Hauter’s op-ed was co-signed by Sandra Steingraber, one of the founders of New Yorkers Against Fracking. Steingraber’s advocacy against energy sector jobs has been controversial, having previously compared women who work in the industry to “hotel maids and prostitutes.”
Actor Mark Ruffalo, who has campaigned for years against fracking in New York, recently touted Jacobson’s plan on The Daily Show. Ruffalo also claimed that the “era of fossil fuels is over,” calling for a global transition to 100 percent renewables by 2050. In 2012, Ruffalo called Jacobson a “Renewable energy Super Hero.”
Listen to America’s real Bruce Banner Renewable energy Super Hero Prof Mark Jacobson talks Wind power http://t.co/NgzHUWEO
— Mark Ruffalo (@MarkRuffalo) September 15, 2012
On the campaign website for Bernie Sanders, the socialist U.S. senator running for president, Bill McKibben promoted Jacobson’s 50-state transition plan, which he said shows how states “could be easily and affordably producing all their power renewably by 2030.”
Construction Jobs and Politics
So how can Jacobson and his supporters claim that transitioning to 100 percent renewables will create more jobs than it will destroy? In short: by including the same types of jobs that environmentalists have dismissed and criticized, most notably in their campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline.
Jacobson’s data show 5.3 million “Construction” jobs being created as a result of the renewables-only transition. After subtracting the nearly 1.3 million net long-term jobs that will be lost, Jacobson’s data show “Net Total Jobs” at a little over four million.
That poses a conundrum for the environmental groups who have promoted Jacobson’s work. Many of those same groups have made it known that they view construction work as inferior to permanent, long-term jobs.
In comments submitted to the U.S. Department of State, signed by a who’s who of prominent green groups – including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, 350.org, and the League of Conservation Voters – environmentalists derided the “temporary jobs” to be created from construction of the Keystone XL pipeline as “minimal.” The groups also claimed it was a “myth” to suggest that the pipeline would result in significant job creation.
The Nebraska Chapter of the Sierra Club trashed the construction jobs associated with Keystone XL, claiming they were only “temporary” and they “would be low-wage jobs.”
A Keystone XL pipeline fact sheet published by the Sierra Club also focused on the supposed lack of permanent jobs, and claimed that renewables would create more economic opportunities: “we should be investing in renewable sources of energy that will provide more jobs,” the Club wrote.
In a 2012 interview about the Keystone XL pipeline, activist Bill McKibben suggested it was lying to tout construction jobs at all:
“Probably the biggest single lie that they [fossil fuel companies] have promulgated over and over again is that this would create, depending on whom you asked, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of jobs.” (emphasis added)
A year earlier, on the Colbert Report, McKibben similarly downplayed the significance of construction jobs in relation to Keystone XL. “There’d be temporary jobs for a while,” McKibben said, “and then the point of a pipeline is, once you’ve got it, no one ever has to work there again.” He went on to claim that “the real jobs come when we get off Big Oil.”
In addition to permanent job losses, a rapid transition to energy technologies that make up less than ten percent of total primary energy consumption brings with it basic feasibility issues.
On more than one occasion, Jacobson has dismissed these concerns by claiming that the only barrier to a 100 percent renewables system is politics. Flanked by signs reading “Fracking = Death” and “Renewable Energy Now,” Jacobson argued at an anti-fracking event in 2013 that “there’s no technical or economic reason why we need to continue with oil, gas, or coal.”
During the rally, dubbed the “New York Crossroads Rally to Stop Fracking and Demand Renewable Energy,” Jacobson encouraged attendees who support a 100 percent renewables system to “pressure your representatives to really look at the science, because the science has been done and it’s available.”
Scientists and environmental experts, however, have expressed major concerns with Jacobson’s plan.
Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, for example, have criticized Jacobson’s paper that attempted to model a transition to 100 percent renewables in New York. Writing in the journal Energy Policy, the CMU team argued that Jacobson and his coauthors “do not present sufficient analysis to demonstrate the technical, economic, and social feasibility of their proposed strategy.”
In a separate critique, published in 2014, researchers from MIT and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory examined a number of studies laying out de-carbonization strategies, including Jacobson’s plan. Similar to the CMU team’s findings, the authors said that the conclusions “need to be supplemented by more detailed analyses realistically addressing the key constraints on energy system transformation.” They added that “none of the studies seriously address the costs associated with integration of large amounts of variable generation.”
For Jacobson’s study in particular, the authors found it would be “dangerously risky to ‘bet the planet’ on a narrow portfolio of favored low-carbon energy technologies,” and that Jacobson’s plan for solar power capacity additions alone “would be higher than has been demonstrated for any single technology in global history.”
Michael Shellenberger from the Breakthrough Institute has similarly critiqued Jacobson’s plan for 100 percent renewables, specifically Jacobson’s decision to rule out nuclear power, which produces no carbon dioxide emissions. Shellenberger, whom TIME Magazine has declared a “hero of the environment,” also notes that “solar and wind are totally different than [fossil fuels] and inferior in that they’re intermittent.”
Dr. James Hansen, former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world’s most famous climate scientists, says that believing in the feasibility of a rapid transition to renewables is more of a mythical belief than a reality-based argument:
“Can renewable energies provide all of society’s energy needs in the foreseeable future? It is conceivable in a few places, such as New Zealand and Norway. But suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.” (emphasis added)
While many experts dispute the feasibility of Jacobson’s plan for a renewables-only energy grid, the severe job losses are far more difficult to dispute, given that they come directly from Jacobson’s research. Those job losses would undoubtedly be devastating for millions of American families.
Of course, creating new jobs for construction workers would be welcome news, just as any additional economic opportunity should typically be encouraged. But environmental groups have spent years suggesting construction jobs aren’t “real jobs,” while also citing Jacobson’s work to claim that wind and solar power will create more employment opportunities than fossil fuels.
Based on Jacobson’s research, the only way that claim is accurate is if those groups include the same types of jobs that they have spent years advocating against.