Proclaiming it "Innovation Week" at the White House, President Obama has ramped up his clean-energy agenda recently. From the Monday launch of a program designed to spark entrepreneurship in high-growth industries, to Thursday's tour of labs at Penn State where researchers are developing more energy-efficient buildings, the president keeps talking the good talk on investing in new technologies to create jobs.
It's a familiar theme by now for Obama, who's been pitching energy innovation since the 2008 campaign trail. His landmark Recovery Act put billions of dollars toward green solutions. He has, time and time again, called on Congress to pass clean-energy legislation. One of his earliest appointees was a special adviser for green jobs to help create new career paths in weatherization construction and renewable power sources — jobs that would allow low-income, trained workers to advance to the top of their trades.
Two years later, though, there hasn't exactly been a nationwide influx of wind turbines, retrofitted buildings and smart grids. So where are all those green jobs?
"This is the time to ask questions," said environmental advocate Van Jones in an interview with The Root. Jones, who was the aforementioned White House green-jobs adviser for six months, maintains that, as the world continues to expand its energy portfolio, millions of green jobs are inevitable.
The question lies in whether the U.S. government will get on board to invest in it. "We never said that all these jobs would be here in America without Congress acting," Jones said. "Those of us who have been beating this drum for 10 years now have always said that Congress has to act."
A Good Start, but …
The president's green-jobs strategy actually got off to a promising start in 2009, when he funneled $80 billion from the Recovery Act into emerging technologies, including solar and wind energy, biofuels and energy efficiency. Out of that amount, $500 million was appropriated for targeted green-job-training programs in low-income communities. According to Jones, Obama's team expected this money to be just a down payment, in anticipation of a bill that would have the private sector throw in up to 10 times as many dollars.
The House of Representatives passed such legislation, the American Clean Energy and Security Act (pdf), in June 2009. The bill died in the Senate. "Had the Senate followed up, we would have a huge job boom going on right now in renewable technologies," said Jones.
Instead the initial money went toward grant support for thousands of renewable-energy companies throughout the country, just to keep the sector from disappearing in the economic crisis. Grants were also awarded to community organizations, from Greensboro, N.C., to Phoenix, to train folks in building weatherization and retrofitting — so that they'd be ready when the jobs came.
"The bad news is, some of these companies are starting to close their doors and go overseas because they don't feel there's going to be a supportive-enough policy environment here in America," said Jones, citing China as an example of where jobs are going. "We're in great danger of losing some of the gains that we have achieved, against gravity, over the past two years."
What's the Holdup?
There are reasonable concerns about leaping into innovative technologies — or seizing our "Sputnik moment," as Obama put it in his State of the Union address last week. One worry is that, on the front end, renewable sources will lead to higher energy costs for consumers. Yet when the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office crunched the numbers, as it did with 2009's failed energy bill, the cost impact was not overly burdensome, costing the average U.S. household $175 a year, or 48 cents a day.
Jones says that most of the resistance in Congress is due to the oil industry's fear of competition and disturbing the status quo. "Then there is this bizarre, ideological allergy to wind and solar energy on the part of conservatives," he continued. "They just see it as 'hippie energy,' and they don't like it." In reality, these industries would benefit hippies and cowboys alike, since the necessary solar and wind farms would be supported in rural red states.
A more compelling argument for innovation investments may be that it's what the majority of Americans support. In a new USA Today-Gallup poll that asked citizens what they want from Congress this year, the most favorable action, picked by 83 percent of respondents, was an energy bill that provides incentives for using alternative energy sources.
Where It's Working
Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, CEO of Green for All, an advocacy group focused on lifting minority communities out of poverty through the green economy, is frank in her assessment of Capitol Hill naysayers. "Here's the reality: We're in the middle of a recession," she told The Root. "The economy hasn't grown in many sectors. The only sector that's growing significantly, in a way that provides family-sustaining wages, is the green economy. If someone has a better idea, I want to understand that. But right now this is the only industry where we're seeing people beginning to go to work."
"The goal is not just to think about who goes to work, but also how to create minority businesses," said Ellis-Lamkins. "Our vision of the economy is one that creates wealth as well as an investment in these industries, and to do that you need both workers and entrepreneurs."
The Green Impact Zone, a program in Kansas City, Mo., is using both local and Recovery Act funds to rehabilitate and weatherize 150 blocks of one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. Since it was implemented last summer, the venture has created 93 jobs, including home auditors, meter installers and customer-service representatives. "When people say, 'Greens jobs are not viable,' or 'This is not real,' it makes me wonder, 'Are they just not keeping up with what's happening in the movement?' " Anita Maltbia, director of the project, asked The Root. "Or are they saying that the nation doesn't need to fund engagement in it for this particular segment of our population?"
A Closer Look at the Numbers
The numbers from these individual, neighborhood-based programs — 90 jobs here, 100 jobs there — don't sound like much compared with the millions of jobs that have disappeared from the economy since the recession began. But the idea, according to green-job activists, is that if these projects are comprehensively replicated in other communities across the country, it will add up.
They also admit that the green economy can take us only so far.
"We've been saying all along that if the country did everything as green as possible, revamped the way that we do a lot of our production and consumption, and had a response from Congress, you could produce 3 million jobs, maybe 4 million," said Jones. While those were huge numbers in 2007, the stat is far less impactful given the economic downturn.
"Now people are going, 'All these people don't have jobs. Where are all the green jobs?' " he continued. "Well, we never promised 12 million green jobs, which is what you'd need just to get us back to where we were in 2007. And aside from the initial stimulus package, we've had no congressional action. The fact that we're doing as well as we are, and can still point to successes and numbers, I think shows the viability of the idea."
What Happens Next
With Republicans now controlling the House, there's no longer talk of a big, in-one-fell-swoop clean-energy bill. Democrats, however, will take up the issue in smaller, individual packages on weatherization funding, energy standards and energy efficiency. President Obama is following up on his State of the Union speech — in which he said that he wants 80 percent of America's electricity coming from clean-energy sources by 2035 — by pushing Congress to order utility companies to start using renewable energy.
"If that's the national goal, then you can't wait until 2032 to start. You've got to start now," said Jones, who, despite the delays from Congress, is hopeful that it will act. "If we did the energy policy the way the president's been talking about, it would result in a massive jobs program for everybody. And African Americans are positioned to benefit as much as anybody else."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.