Is there a future in green jobs?
Green jobs are becoming important because of growing recognition that our planet is threatened with disastrous climate change brought on by greenhouse gases. What’s at issue now is not whether we will confront this threat but how. Uncertainty about which green technologies will become most widespread is causing uncertainty about the outlook for green jobs.
The biofuels industry is a good example. Biofuels processing technicians and biofuels production managers work at installations that turn corn into ethanol and that process soybeans, canola and recycled cooking oils into diesel fuel. These occupations presently offer lots of job opportunities in the United States and Canada, where the large plains regions have provided the plant feedstocks and the political will to inject a lot of biofuels into our supplies of motor fuel. U.S. production of ethanol is projected to increase by 74 per cent and biodiesel by 135 per cent in the ten-year period ending in 2018. In Canada, biofuels production is expected to grow by 76 per cent from 2010 to 2011.
In the long run, however, the biofuels industry will probably change considerably. Many economists who have analyzed the full production cycle of fuels based on grain and oilseeds have concluded that it actually consumes more energy as inputs than it produces as fuels. Researchers in the U.S. and Canada, funded by their governments and by large energy producers such as ExxonMobil, are exploring ways to produce biofuels from non-food crops such as switchgrass and microalgae. In conclusion, then, careers in biofuels probably have a bright future, but only for workers who will be ready to move to new technologies and, probably, work locations.
The wind energy industry is less likely to see fundamental changes in technologies. Europe already has a mature industry manufacturing wind turbines and towers. Because the parts are so large that they cannot be shipped easily, European manufacturers are setting up plants in North America to harness the ample wind power available here, thus creating local jobs in manufacturing, as well as in installation. The occupations involved include a wide range of skills: engineering, steelwork, construction, and maintenance. And the future looks bright. Canada’s installed wind-power capacity increased by 40 per cent in 2009. In the U.S., growth of wind power has already exceeded the projections in the Department of Energy’s 2008 report, 20% Wind Energy by 2030.
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Jobs in solar technology are a little harder to forecast. China is moving so rapidly to create a photovoltaic manufacturing industry that North America may never create a large number of solar manufacturing jobs. On the other hand, installation jobs will probably be plentiful, especially in the United States. The Solar Energy Industries Association estimates that installed grid-tied solar energy systems in the U.S. grew by 81 per cent from 2007 to 2008. Engineers and materials scientists will also find work developing new photovoltaic technologies; almost every week produces a new headline about such R&D.
One more field that is already producing green jobs is energy conservation. Governments are encouraging energy-saving upgrades to homes and industrial facilities, thus spurring employment of energy auditors, who study energy use and detect leaks and inefficiencies. Many of them come from engineering backgrounds, but their recommendations also create work for lower-skilled insulation workers and weatherization installers.
Some other technologies needing green workers are either more experimental and uncertain, such as geothermal energy, or more traditional but slow-growing, such as hydropower. Regardless of which technologies become dominant, a good background in math and science will be useful for all young workers who aspire to a job in the green energy and energy-conservation industries.
By Laurence Shatkin, PhD, Senior Product Developer, JIST Publishing, a division of EMC/Paradigm Publishing
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