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Energy Innovation Should Trump Job Creation

Across the country, it is hard to find an elected official who hasn't jumped on the bandwagon. So many stump speeches marry the policy objectives of saving the environment and creating jobs. It starts at the top: President Barack Obama has promised to spend $150 billion over 10 years to create 5 million green-collar jobs. Like a human wave at a sporting event, Americans are cheering for the green economy to bring us out of our economic funk and solve and foreign energy dependence, all at the same time. Of course, we have serious work to do in these important policy areas. The threat of climate change is real and we must act now. Transforming our national energy system will require broad public support and across sectors. The current economic crisis is a wakeup call for our country to become more competitive by strengthening our education and workforce development systems and committing ourselves to a national innovation agenda. While there is overlap and potential synergy between energy and economic policies, I worry we will accomplish neither if we treat them as one big policy mashup. Our national energy conversation has been subsumed by the frenzy over green jobs. That's understandable considering our rate of 9.4% and the many middle- and lower-income people who see no upside in the global-warming and energy-independence causes. A narrative that claims we will replace all of the lost blue-collar jobs with new green-collar jobs plays much better. But it is important to ask whether these millions of green jobs are real and whether a jobs argument can enable the transformations we need on the energy front. OPPORTUNITIES WILL KNOCKReplacing all of the country's lost industrial jobs with green jobs is unrealistic, but a less-wasteful energy system will create opportunities. Retrofitting buildings and homes, constructing a "smart electric grid," increasing wind and solar capacity, improving mass transit, and increasing research for new energy platforms all have job creation potential. What is not clear is how many of these jobs will be new. In any paradigm shift there are job gains that are offset by losses. And the adoption of new technologies often results in systems that require less labor to operate and maintain. Most likely there will be a job shift as companies align their offerings to serve the new energy market and workers learn additional skills to stay relevant. The transition will create at least a temporary increase in job opportunities due to the enormity and speed of the system change being contemplated. It is also important to distinguish between transitory work, such as rehabbing a building or erecting an offshore wind farm, and longer-term jobs created by companies designing and manufacturing the required technologies and components. Initially, there will be good jobs related to assembly of wind farms, but the turbines won't necessarily be built in the U.S. Manufacturers will produce them wherever they can find the best deals. While every country salivates over these high-wage opportunities, the market is global and the U.S. has a late start. The fighting over jobs will be intense. A NEED FOR CONSENSUSThe problem with overplaying the promise of green jobs to win more backing for "decarbonizing" our economy is twofold. First, it threatens to turn people off to needed environmental actions if jobs don't quickly materialize. Second, the pain of averting global warming and reducing our dependence on foreign oil is greater than we are being told. We need to build a broad consensus across America that transforming our energy system is imperative. We've already seen what happens to support for new energy policies when the price of gasoline at the pump goes down. Expect the same thing to happen if green jobs become the measuring stick for important energy policies like capping emissions and concurrently creating a market to buy and sell exemptions. I hope the U.S. will compete as an innovator and global leader for green-collar work. We need all of the jobs that we can get to help us out of this economic downturn. But the driver for energy policy should not be the labor intensity of alternative approaches. If the best way to address global climate change and energy independence is to employ technology that doesn't create significant numbers of jobs, that is the path we should take. Energy innovation is now playing a supporting role to economic policy and job creation. It is time to give it center stage.
Saul Kaplan is the founder and Chief Catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory. Saul also blogs at It's Saul Connected.

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