What, exactly, is a ‘green’ job?

Robert P. Murphy Research Fellow, Independent Institute
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With an ailing economy, nearly double-digit unemployment and a sense among Washington lawmakers that something, anything, must be done to “create” jobs, politicians of both political stripes have turned to “green” jobs as the panacea to cure all ills.

The president has promised $2.3 billion here, $3 billion there, and we’ve certainly all witnessed an endless stream of public statements touting the virtues of “green” jobs. So, with all this media attention, taxpayer resources and political capital dedicated to “green” jobs, many Americans find themselves asking the question: what exactly is a green job?

In short, there is no true definition for a green job—even the Department of Labor admits that. Is a scientist working on the newest innovations in windmill technology a holder of a green job? How about the worker who burns 200 gallons of diesel fuel to transport that turbine to the installation site?

Many Americans are optimistic about the possibility of creating of green jobs, but not because of the color: With official unemployment rates just under 10 percent, it’s tough to be against any job—green, orange, polka-dot or otherwise.

Unfortunately, economists have not done their jobs with respect to educating the public about the tradeoffs involved in the debate over green jobs. Government and industry cheerleaders have largely gotten a pass in promoting the false idea that green jobs are a win-win, in which we can help the environment and the economy at the same time.

This is an empty promise. By their very nature, government-created green jobs are unsustainable. If they weren’t, it wouldn’t take government mandates or billions in taxpayer subsidies to create them in the first place—and it certainly wouldn’t take billions more to sustain them.

Late last year, President Obama visited the DeSoto Solar Center in Arcadia, Fla. Located two hours south of Tampa, this Florida Power and Light (FPL) facility is billed as “the largest solar power plant in the United States.”

One would naturally applaud this as success—a step forward in increasing our use of renewable energy. The president certainly did. Yet, once again, when you peel back the green curtain, disturbing details emerge.

You see, “the largest solar field in the United States,” now operational, employs a full time staff of two (this is not a typo). During the rainy season, FPL will add a team of six landscapers—one week a month to cut the grass. The 400 jobs to which President Obama referenced in his speech were installation jobs. Therein lies the inconvenient truth about green jobs: to keep 400 people at work, we’d have to continuously install additional solar plants. That means more government subsidies, mandates and ratepayer increases, and ultimately, the next economic “bubble” and “burst.”

This is no hypothetical warning. The Spanish embarked on the world’s most aggressive renewables program—President Obama specifically praised it soon after his inauguration as a model for his own agenda. Yet, as the Spanish government faced budget difficulties, it was forced to rein in its support for renewables.

Whereas previously renewables such as solar energy enjoyed guaranteed, government-mandated prices at 500 percent of the market rate, the new regime called subsidies to be reduced to a mere 300 percent above what the market would otherwise bare. Apparently, even this monumental handout wasn’t enough to sustain those jobs: The Spanish bubble popped, and today the country is wracked with an unemployment rate on the doorstep of 20 percent.

“A bubble?” stated a partner at Kleiner Perkins, the politically connected venture capital firm heavily invested in green technology, “You can almost count on it… Bubbles are common. They end badly for those who come in late. For those who come in early, it’s not that bad.” Rest assured, Kleiner Perkins got in early.

Government officials don’t make us richer by rearranging workers. In the long run, for every “green” job the government “creates” in one area, it destroys a real job somewhere else. But the whole charade isn’t simply a wash, because government green jobs policies make the economy less productive. They raise prices—especially for energy—across the board and make consumers poorer.

If green jobs proponents want to cite the danger of global warming as the reason for showering massive government subsidies on the wind and solar industry, that’s a case they’re free to make. But they should be upfront with the American public that these so-called “solutions” won’t make us any more prosperous. If the renewable mandates and other subsidies actually made the economy more productive, the private sector would have implemented the changes long ago.

Robert P. Murphy is a senior economist with the Institute for Energy Research, a nonpartisan, market-oriented energy think tank with offices in Houston, Texas, and Washington, D.C.