Op-Ed: Renewable manufacturing jobs continue to make America great

Source: By Denise Bode, The Hill • Posted: Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The goal of bringing good manufacturing jobs back to the United States is not just an old school game. It is and can be more powerfully advanced by renewables.

Let’s start with America’s largest renewable energy resource by installed generating capacity: wind power. Phenomenal growth in wind turbine manufacturing in the U.S. has been driven by the simple fact that the most efficient turbines are so large that it is cost effective to manufacture major components close to installation sites here at home.

Today, more than 500 factories build wind-related parts and materials in 43 states, making everything from major wind turbine components such as nacelles, blades, towers, and gearboxes, to internal components like bearings, slip rings, fasteners, and power converters. These facilities support more than 25,000 manufacturing employees. Today, more than 100,000 Americans work in wind energy across all 50 states.

These manufacturing facilities are being built not only close to where the wind farms are being built, but also where many manufacturing facilities have fled. For example, in the Rust Belt, Ohio leads the U.S. with over 60 wind power factories, while Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania boast 26 apiece.

While not all areas that have wind farms can boast a new manufacturing facility, they are contributing to jobs and the economy as more than 70 percent of wind farm capacity is installed in rural areas that fall below the poverty line. Of course, wind power’s reliability and potential continue to advance smartly behind technological advances.

Another renewable sector with tremendous growth potential is biomanufacturing. Largely based on the most efficiently produced carbohydrate in the world, American corn, chemical engineers are manufacturing renewable bioproducts as diverse as personal care, coatings for everything from paper to clothing, adhesives used in most construction materials and, increasingly, biochemicals and plastics.

According to a report from the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, biochemicals and plastics already account for more than 77,000 jobs nationally and pays an average annual wage of more than $80,000. Moreover, these jobs have an impressive employment multiplier of 18. As innovation advances enhanced functionality and drives down costs, advanced bioproducts appear to be just getting started.

Compostable bioplastics are starting to take over packaging and serveware in local restaurant chains, such as Sweetgreen. Waste from these restaurants does not go to landfills, but city composting operations, helping to control waste disposal costs. Some recyclable bioplastics even have performance capabilities that exceed conventional plastics. Durable bioplastics produced with carbon capture in place today afford promising carbon neutral or even negative technology.

Technology advances and growing consumer demand for low carbon energy sources and products ensure that many renewables will grow rapidly in the coming years. The right policies can make the U.S. the location where the renewable manufacturing jobs growth occurs. Key will be reforms in regulations and taxes.

Rolling back regulatory overreach can fuel manufacturing growth by inviting investment in America. Eighty-seven percent of manufacturers surveyed say that if compliance costs were reduced permanently and significantly, they would invest the savings in workers, research and development, or capital.

For example, while President Obama sincerely advocated development of the bioeconomy, his Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) greenhouse gas regulatory overreach thwarted further development of biochemicals and bioplastics. The new team at the EPA should abandon permitting requirements over carbon dioxide emissions from rising bread, brewing beer, and advanced bioproduct manufacturers because the carbon being released from processing crops is simply carbon that was captured when the crops grew earlier in the year.

And all American manufacturers, including those in the renewable space, can benefit from tax reform focused on investment in the United States. Proposals being advocated by the House of Representatives in the “Better Way” agenda can boost American manufacturing with its simplification, immediate expensing of capital expenditures, and lower tax rates.

Denise Bode is a partner at Michael Best Strategies, a Washington-based consulting firm. She is a former chief executive officer of the American Wind Energy Association and former president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.