Wind industry picks up, but jobs decline
By Jim Tankersley
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
WASHINGTON — America's wind energy industry enjoyed a banner year in 2009, thanks largely to tax credits and other incentives packed into the $787 billion economic stimulus bill.
But even though a record 10,000 megawatts of new generating capacity was created, few jobs were created overall and wind power manufacturing employment fell — a setback for President Obama's pledge to create millions of new "green jobs." Obama has long pitched green jobs, especially in the energy, transportation and manufacturing fields, as a prescription for long-term, stable employment and a prosperous middle class.
But those jobs have been slow to materialize, especially skilled, good-paying blue-collar jobs such as assembling wind turbines, retrofitting homes to use less energy and working on solar panels in the desert.
On the campaign trail, candidate Obama promised to create some 5 million new green jobs over the course of a decade. The stimulus bill approved early last year allocated billions of dollars to the so-called "clean energy" sector. And the president continued to set high expectations for green-job creation in his State of the Union speech.
Administration officials admit they are nowhere near that pace. Earlier this month, government economists released their first accounting of clean-energy jobs created or saved by the stimulus: 52,000.
Several factors accounted for the slow start, some of them linked to weakness in the overall economy. Electric power demand fell nationwide last year. Coal and natural gas continued to offer tough price competition. Renewable energy companies, faced with limited demand, often drew down inventory or imported renewable technology instead of building new turbines or solar cells domestically.
Industry analysts and energy company executives said job growth is also hampered by lingering uncertainties in federal energy policy. Those include questions about when or whether existing tax breaks will expire and whether the Senate will pass a climate bill that would make fossil fuels more expensive — and renewable more competitive.
The federal stimulus bill spared the wind and solar industries steep job losses last year, executives said. The American Wind Energy Association estimates the bill saved 40,000 factory, installation and maintenance jobs in its industry alone — but even then, the group said last week that wind manufacturing suffered a net job loss from 2008 levels.