Lots of cows and windmills, but where are the workers?

Green energy doesn't necessarily mean lots of new jobs, say economists. But do we even need that argument?

Published April 20, 2009 10:45PM (EDT)

As I left the last water stop before the climb over the Altamont Pass, steering my bicycle towards the Diablo Range that separates the Livermore Valley from the great Central Valley, a steady blast of wind stormed at me, as if blown directly by the hills themselves. It reminded me of that scene from the "The Fellowship of the Ring" when the travelers are turned back by a ferocious blizzard in their attempt to cross over the Misty Mountains via Redhorn Pass. I don't think Saruman himself was unleashing this nasty headwind, but the message was the same: You do not want do this! GO BACK! GO BACK!

Climbing a steep hill with a strong headwind in your face is like being simultaneously stabbed with an icepick and chewed on by fire ants. One punishment is enough! But what's bad for cyclists is good for something most Bay Area cyclists are fond of: renewable energy. The Altamont Pass is home to one of the earliest wind farms in the United States, something that anyone who has ever driven on Interstate 580 to or from the Valley's I-5 is plenty familiar with. But it's one thing to speed across the ridge appreciating the windmill aesthetic for a few minutes, and quite another to feel the wind on your face that is the reason for their existence for an hour or two, as you peddle up the hill.

For example, until yesterday, I never appreciated the rather unworldly mechanical murmur of hundreds of wind turbines rotating at high speed -- something like the sound of a fleet of muted helicopters in full whirl. It's not necessarily an unpleasant sound -- certainly, the cows munching peacefully away underneath the towers did not seem to be alarmed -- but I could see not wanting to live under one.

One thing I did not see in my meandering journey was a single human being involved in anything connected to the windmills. Of course, it was Sunday, but still, if green energy is supposed to generate green jobs, then there wasn't much evidence to prove it on the Diablo Range. Lots of cows, lots of windmills spinning their blades, no workers.

The Obama administration has been strongly pushing a green-energy-equals-green-jobs mantra, but a growing chorus of environmentally-minded economists are pushing back, noting that any scheme that raises the price for carbon dioxide emissions might destroy as many jobs in the old polluting industries as it creates in the new green biz. Fortune's Marc Gunther chimes in as well:

My point is that the climate change debate shouldn't be about green jobs. It's intellectually dishonest to pretend that we can forecast, with any degree of accuracy, the impact of a complicated government policy on a dynamic global economy decades into the future. Both sides know that their projections are based on a host of assumptions which may or may not come true. What if we decide as a nation to turn to nuclear energy as a source of low-carbon power? That probably won't create many long-term jobs. What if there's a breakthrough in the solar PV business in China? That may not bring green jobs here. Are farmers who grow corn for ethanol doing green jobs? That hasn't turned out so well...

One can take this line of reasoning too far, of course. Denmark is the world's leading exporter of state-of-the-art wind-turbine technology, due to some far-seeing government incentives. I'm guessing that's going to be a good position for the Danes to be in for the foreseeable future. For example, Reuters reported on Monday that China is now expecting to have 100 gigawatts worth of wind power generating capacity by 2020, which is three times as much as the government was predicting just 18 months ago.

That's a lot of windmills. In 2008, the United States boasted 25 gigawatts of wind-power capacity, (including 576 megawatts from the Altamont wind farm). Building enough wind-turbines to satisfy China's hunger for power (the country is also beginning construction of five nuclear power plants in 2009) would seem likely to generate a fair number of jobs.

Enough to make up for all the coal industry jobs that might be lost if Congress passes a cap-and-trade plan with teeth? It's almost impossible to say. But if you take a big picture view, taking into account both the challenge of dealing with climate change and the increasing demand for energy, worldwide, that is inevitable once the global economy starts growing again, then it seems to me you don't really need to make a green jobs argument to make the case for green energy.

But right now, in the middle of a deep recession, making any kind of argument for green energy can sometimes feels like biking uphill into a force ten gale. Sure would be nice to get to the top of that hill, and have the wind at one's back for the descent. Kind of like getting the market incentives right for renewable energy. Once it all starts working, I'll bet things happen pretty fast

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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