Clean industry job growth slowed in 2014, despite uptick from Tesla and solar industry 

Source: Daniel Cusick, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, March 9, 2015

Job growth in the U.S. clean energy and clean transportation sectors slowed considerably in 2014, with roughly 47,000 new jobs created by 170 development projects nationwide, according to data released yesterday by the business group Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2).

That’s compared with more than 78,000 jobs created by the two sectors in 2013, reflecting a 40 percent drop year over year, according to E2’s fourth-quarter and annual jobs report.

“Despite continued growth, ongoing uncertainty over public policy at both the federal and state levels, coupled with the expiration of beneficial tax policies, cast a cloud over clean energy industries,” the group said in the report.

But the sectors also saw several bright spots, including a robust expansion of solar energy across the United States and major announcements involving the manufacture of high-tech car batteries and solar panels.

As in previous years, the greatest growth occurred in states where renewable energy, alternative-fuel cars and efficiency programs have strong political support, such as California and New York.

Nevada, however, led the country in the number of new jobs, due largely to Tesla Motors’ decision to build a $5 billion “gigafactory” battery production facility near Reno. That project is expected to employ more than 6,000 people, according to company officials. But the state also saw sustained growth in its solar sector and the construction of a biofuels plant that will convert household waste into jet fuel.

In New York, SolarCity announced plans to build an advanced solar cell manufacturing facility in Buffalo that could employ up to 5,000 people, while the State University of New York College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering in Albany is constructing a laboratory to house more than 1,000 staff focusing on clean tech research, according to the report.

An engine for growth led by solar

Rounding out the top 10 states for clean energy and clean transportation job growth for 2014 were Michigan, Arizona, Texas, Colorado, North Carolina, Utah and New Mexico, according to E2’s annual tally.

Since the jobs census began in 2012, E2 said employers have added more than 233,000 jobs in clean energy and clean transportation, making the sector one of the nation’s leading engines for economic growth. In addition to renewable energy and alternative-fuel vehicles, the sector includes firms engaged in energy efficiency, smart grids, biofuels and mass transit.

For 2014, solar power was the dominant driver of the sector’s growth, accounting for 20,000 new jobs associated with 60 projects. Roughly 75 percent of solar-sector job growth was on the generation side of the business, while 25 percent of the jobs were in manufacturing. E2 attributed solar’s strong performance to “declining materials prices and favorable public policies,” including the federal investment tax credit and state-based renewable portfolio standards.

The advanced vehicle sector also had a strong year, with more than 9,000 jobs announced. While Tesla accounted for more than two-thirds of that number with jobs in Nevada and California, other automakers such as Michigan-based General Motors announced they would expand hiring in their electric and alternative-fuel vehicle divisions. Michigan also saw its job numbers buoyed by Detroit’s $140 million M-1 light rail project, which began construction last summer and is expected to create 2,000 jobs through 2016.

The wind energy sector added roughly 6,800 jobs last year.

Wind power subsidies drop

Bob Keefe, E2’s executive director, said in a statement that the 2014 jobs report demonstrates that the “clean energy revolution continues,” but such optimism was tempered by the fact that a number of federal and state supports for renewable energy — such as the federal production tax credit for wind energy — have expired or seen eroding political support.

He added that, while dozens of states have benefited from rising consumer interest and government supports for clean energy and clean transportation, “the one place in the country that doesn’t seem to get it is Congress.”

“Instead of sitting on Capitol Hill endlessly debating new ways to prop up coal, oil and other dirty energy companies, lawmakers ought to actually look at what’s happening in their states and quit stalling on smart policies that will keep clean energy working for all of America,” he said.

Critics of renewable energy subsidies, including many congressional Republicans and free market think tanks, maintain that sectors like wind and solar power and biofuels have matured sufficiently that they should be cut loose from taxpayer supports.

Moreover, they argue that much of the growth in clean energy and transportation sectors hinges on government regulation, including efforts by the Obama administration to dramatically reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from electric power plants and motor vehicles. Doing so could result in deep cuts in coal and oil consumption, something critics contend may wreck the economy.

For its part, E2 said the adoption of new government policies that reduce energy-sector carbon emissions and promote alternative transportation “could provide a major boost to clean energy jobs in the future.”

Concerns about a ‘chilling effect’

The group pointed to two federal actions — U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan targeting power plant emissions and the reauthorization of the federal transportation programs — as pathways to greatly expand the clean energy and clean transportation sector.

“In order to build upon clean energy’s successes, it’s up to federal and state policymakers to provide businesses with regulatory certainty and the strong market signals they need to expand operations and create jobs,” the group said.

It pointed to a recent finding by the Natural Resources Defense Council stating that efficiency measures under the Clean Power Plan could create up to 274,000 jobs in the energy efficiency sector alone.

On the flip side, E2 said that congressional efforts to end federal tax credits for wind and solar power and energy efficiency has resulted “in a chilling effect on the investment climate surrounding these technologies.”

The group said results of a new sampling of business leaders showed that at least 55 percent reported they would likely increase investment in clean energy and clean transportation if federal clean energy tax incentives were extended, while 50 percent said they would increase investment levels if the Clean Power Plan is implemented.