Three weeks ago, US President Barack Obama stood in front of a sea of gleaming solar panels in Boulder City, Nevada, to celebrate his administration’s efforts to promote “green energy.”
Stretching row upon row into the desert, the Copper Mountain Solar Project not far from Las Vegas provided an impressive backdrop for the president.
Built on public land, the facility is the largest of its kind in the US. Its 1 million solar panels provide enough energy to power 17,000 homes.
However, it employs just 10 people.
Three years after Obama launched a push to build a job-creating “green” economy, the White House can say that more than 1 million drafty homes have been retrofitted to lower heating and cooling costs, while energy generation from renewable sources such as wind and solar has nearly doubled since 2008.
However, the millions of “green jobs” Obama promised have been slow to sprout, disappointing many who had hoped that the US$90 billion earmarked for clean-energy efforts in the recession-fighting federal stimulus package would ease unemployment — still above 8 percent last month. Supporters say the administration over-promised on the jobs front and worry that a backlash could undermine support for clean-energy policies in general.
“All of this stuff is extraordinarily worthy for driving long-term economic transformation, but extremely inappropriate to sell as a short-term job program,” said Mark Muro, a clean-energy specialist at the Brookings Institution.
Others say the green-jobs push has crowded out less fashionable efforts that would have put people back to work quickly.
“From my perspective it makes more sense for us to arm our clients with the basic skills, rather than saying, ‘By golly, you will do something in the green economy or you won’t work,’” said Janet Blumen, the head of the Foundation for an Independent Tomorrow, a Las Vegas job-training organization that has seen positions in trucking and accounting go unfilled because training money had been earmarked for green efforts.
A US$500 million job-training program has so far helped fewer than 20,000 people find work, far short of its goal.
Republicans, meanwhile, have seized on the failure of solar panel maker Solyndra, which received a US$535 million loan guarantee, to argue that White House allies have been the only ones who have benefited from the green jobs push.
“He handed out tens of billions of dollars to green energy companies, including his friends and campaign contributors at companies like Solyndra that are now bankrupt,” Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said on April 4.
Backers of the notion of a “green collar” work force argue that earth-friendly energy is a promising growth sector that could create a bounty of stable, middle-class jobs and fill the gap left by manufacturing work that has moved overseas.
On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama promised that a US$150 billion investment would generate 5 million jobs over 10 years.
Obama included US$90 billion in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to weatherize drafty buildings, fund electric-car makers and encourage other clean-energy efforts.
“We’ll put nearly half a million people to work building wind turbines and solar panels, constructing fuel-efficient cars and buildings, and developing the new energy technologies that will lead to new jobs,” he said at a wind-turbine plant in Ohio the day before he took office.