Building the local green economy

By | Published in San Diego News Network (SDNN.com) | March 16, 2010 |

The clean energy economy is real and growing. President Barack Obama’s FY2011 budget allocates $85 million for green job training programs and several hundred million for green energy research. According to the American Solar Energy Society, the clean energy economy generated $970 billion in revenues and 8.5 millions jobs in 2006. Just this past December, the county of San Diego received a $5.1 million federal block grant for energy efficiency and conservation projects. It is imperative that the infusion of capital into the clean energy economy create good, middle class careers and not another class of poverty jobs.

Unfortunately, many of the new, green jobs pay close to minimum wage and offer little to no career advancement. A job weatherizing homes, for instance, often pays less than $10/hr with no benefits. Workers in this job class make less than $20,000 per year, barely above the federal poverty level for a family of three. A 2010 study by the National Center for Child Poverty found that minimum wage workers in San Diego with two children are on average $26,944 shy of making ends meet if they do not participate in social service programs. Even families that participate in programs like SNAP/Food Stamps, public health insurance, and federal and state tax credits find themselves $14,750 in the hole.

By contrast, according to the California Research Bureau, every job that pays an average of $37,500 annually generates $2,954 in taxes. A $50,000 job equates to $3,197 in tax revenue. By putting people back to work in jobs that pay a fair wage and keeping them off of government rolls, we can save up to nearly $6,000 in social services, creating a potential net positive impact on local governments of $9,197. Government can choose between being complicit in the creation of full-time jobs that will never pay workers enough to live here or they can set fair pay standards that keep workers off of government rolls and paying taxes.

As taxpayers, we should require that our money be used to create a shared prosperity in addition to reducing greenhouse gases and protecting our environment. Requiring a well- trained and qualified workforce accomplishes this. A report by McKinsey Global Energy and Materials has identified improper installation, use and maintenance of energy systems as a barrier to achieving efficiency goals. A well-trained workforce is more likely to notice pollution, chemical spills and other environmental hazards.

Labor standards can reinforce clean energy projects by ensuring that purpose (clean energy and energy efficiency) meets practice (successful implementation of projects in an environmentally conscious way).

Increasing numbers of state and local governments are merging clean energy projects with quality, middle class career creation. In the city of Los Angeles, all new buildings over 50,000 square feet are required to meet LEED standards and all city buildings over 7,500 square feet must meet LEED Silver standards. The Los Angeles Green Retrofit Ordinance, passed in 2009, unites the city’s energy efficiency program with real pathways out of poverty and into careers for local residents. The ordinance requires workers to come from local technical school training programs, apprenticeship programs, and city training programs. Construction materials must be purchased from local sources. By putting local taxpayers to work, the city keeps the dollars circulating locally and strengthening the community.

The ordinance prioritizes retrofits according to the potential energy cost savings, green job creation, emissions reductions, and health and safety benefits to the community. The focus on quality jobs and community health deepens the positive impact of the clean energy projects and reverberates through the local economy.

Green jobs must be good jobs. We have the ability to rebuild the middle-class and create prosperity shared by all. In the coming year, opponents of good jobs and clean energy will promote a false dichotomy between the economy and environment. Don’t fall for it. The clean energy economy is here. Jobs in clean energy and energy efficiency are here. The quality of these jobs and the community we build around this economy are up to us.

Jason Everitt is a Research and Policy Analyst for the Center on Policy Initiatives. He also draws from previous experience working with the Sierra Club and San Diego Coastkeeper.