Eli Shepherd: In Pursuit of Green
Eli Shepherd is an advocate for the environment and founder of Foliage Skateboards, an environmentally oriented company in the running for a big grant. Vote for him here: www.myentre.net/busProfile/tabid/95/Default.aspx?entry=553
With unemployment in the United States at 7.8% (Google Public Data) and environmental catastrophes occurring on a terrifyingly regular basis, largely due to climate change, we desperately need more investment, worker training, and tax credits in the renewable energy industry. Over the course of the presidential campaigns in the past year or so, there has been no argument against the fact that the US needs more jobs. Both leading candidates have spoken of the need to “put America back to work.” At the same time in the scientific world, there has been a nearly 100% consensus (Gillis) that climate change is a serious risk. Columnists, activists, and politicians alike have all seen a solution in the so-called Green Industry.
The industry is not only one of the fastest-growing in the nation, but it also addresses unemployment and climate change head on. People work to find alternative fuels, products, and ways of living that improve the environment and benefit everyone. The only problem with this? Most people just aren’t ready to take the leap. Change, regardless of necessity, is scary. We need to remove as much of the uncertainty as possible. If there are incentives to invest in renewables, worries are eased and economic growth follows. For everyone’s sake, the United States needs more investors, trained workers, and especially tax credits in the renewable energy industry.
Due to the demand for both American jobs and renewable energy sources, renewable energy companies utilizing solar and wind power have arisen in great numbers. As of 2011, 75,000 jobs in the United States were in the wind industry alone (AWEA). The Federal Production Tax Credit currently provides tax credits for wind energy production throughout the US. However, the credit is set to expire at the end of this year. Some argue that wind turbines harm birds that fly through and collide with turbines. While an understandable fear, a threat is just not present. As explained to me by the director of public relations for a wind turbine company in North Liberty, future turbine sites are tested for any environmental issues beforehand, minimizing damage, and as for the birds, “the turbines are the same as any other structure – maybe a bird hits it on accident, but it’s not really an issue.” Presidential Nominee Mitt Romney says that, if elected, he will allow the tax credit to expire. His argument is that the wind industry should succeed or fail on its own, with no government assistance (Masters). His theory, however, is faulty, as demonstrated by the case of an Iowa wind turbine production facility. The Acciona Wind Plant in North Liberty employs well over 100 people “at full capacity,” an employee of the plant informed a group of citizens (including me) at a recent tour of the facility. When the question arose as to how many people they employed currently, the number fell to the mid 30s. Joe Baker, the CEO of Acciona Windpower North America, cited the tax credit’s unknown future as the cause of little investment. He explained to the Iowa City Press-Citizen that “nobody is committing” but said that “if the production tax credit is renewed, they’ll call us the next day and say, ‘okay, let’s go.’” (Sullivan). Currently, Iowa is ranked third in the nation for total wind capacity installed, just behind California and Texas (AWEA). If we want the wind industry to survive in Iowa and in the country as a whole, the extension of this tax credit is essential. Without government support, individuals and the private sector shy away, and jobs are lost as a consequence. Just look at North Liberty.
Another industry that fuels job creation and helps combat climate change is the solar industry. Its aid to job growth can be well displayed in a number of statistics, including the 109% growth in the industry over the course of 2011 alone. However, despite the huge growth in percentage, the actual size of the industry is relative. As of 2011, the United States cumulative photovoltaic capacity hit 4GW of energy. At the same time in Germany, the number was at 25GW. The United States’ solar industry may be growing rapidly, but when put up against countries like Germany, there is no contest. The U.S. is way behind. In a study published by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, it is presented that the production of 4 KW’s of solar energy costs $20,000 in the US while in Germany the total cost comes to approximately $8,000 (Farrell). The huge gap in cost is attributed to strict regulation related costs like permitting and overhead. As Todd Woody of Forbes magazine put it, “When rooftop solar was in its infancy, some of these regulations made sense. Now that rooftop solar is standardized, simpler, and safer – and the panels are much cheaper – this paperwork is unnecessary. This red tape is holding back the industry from creating even more jobs, driving innovation and building true energy security for our nation,” (Woody). Not all the red tape should be cut – safety and quality first by all means – but just enough to bring down costs and make solar more readily available. With more support for this industry, costs will come down, more jobs will be created, and all will benefit. With such plentiful political inaction it’s easy to understand why proponents of the industry are reeling. I certainly don’t know what we’re waiting for.
When the United States does focus on renewables, the prevailing idea has seemed to be that “bigger is better.” The “99%” of the US solar industry, if you will, consists of corporations seeking large scale installations. However efficient this may seem, Germany once again proves what works for solar. Statistics show that if the US had matched Germany’s solar production to 2011, 10 states could be powered entirely by solar energy. Yet another big difference between Germany and the US is that of Germany’s localization of their solar production. While we remain focused on big solar, Germany hires local contractors and installs small-scale panels on house and church rooftops. In fact, 80% of their 25 GW’s of solar power is from rooftop panels. Not only is local installation efficient but it also can increase the total economic impact of solar investment by up to 3.4 times (Farrell). Not only that but, according to an article from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, “with local ownership, making America a 100% solar nation could create nearly 10 million jobs, and add as much as $450 billion to the U.S. economy.” That certainly sounds like “putting America back to work” to me. The creation and extension of tax credits allows more people to get into the renewable industry, and can spur local growth in communities across the nation. We don’t want to miss the boat on this one, by any means.
Due to imminent environmental catastrophes and high unemployment, continuing at our current sluggish speed will get us nowhere fast, and many politicians want to reverse the slug completely. America won’t be the “greatest nation on earth” for long if it decides to ravage its own soil for oil and natural gas, and going overseas for fuel certainly isn’t working out too well, either. It has become obvious that renewables are the way to go; we just need a big push to really get the ball rolling. If American voters and lawmakers stand up against the ways of old and come out in favor of green jobs and the renewable industry, everyone will benefit and we’ll be well on our way towards a future with a lot more green, in both senses of the word.
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