Energy efficiency jobs—like retrofitting buildings to meet LEED standards—could create hundreds of thousands of jobs. And Biden has put them at the center of his campaign to help America recover. (Graphic by COURIER)
Energy efficiency jobs—like retrofitting buildings to meet LEED standards—could create hundreds of thousands of jobs. And Biden has put them at the center of his campaign to help America recover. (Graphic by COURIER)

Making the United States more energy efficient could create hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs, save the planet, and help end the coronavirus recession.

Alexandria’s energy manager, Bill Eger, is the type of person who can tell you—off the top of his head—exactly how many streetlights there are in the Northern Virginia city that borders the Potomac River and Washington, DC.

Eger knows that number—10,500—because it is one of the ways the city is working to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Other tactics include transitioning the bus system to include electric vehicles and updating city-owned buildings so they are as energy efficient as possible.

A challenge to getting that work done? It’s not just the coronavirus pandemic. It is also hiring the electricians, HVAC specialists, and other tradesmen needed to finish the job.

Eger points out that the DC metro area has been undergoing a building boom for years. But he said it’s also due to a lack of workers who can do this energy efficiency work.

That lack underpins a major part of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s argument that his climate plan is also a jobs plan. The Biden plan won plaudits for being more progressive than expected, setting a specific and aggressive target of having an emissions-free power sector by 2035. But it also has one goal that gets a lot less attention: Upgrading 4 million buildings in the United States to meet new energy efficiency standards in just four years. 

The scope of this project is massive. According to the Energy Information Agency, as of 2012 there were 5.6 million commercial buildings in the country. (The agency is in the process of updating the data for 2018 now.) But changing light bulbs, upgrading HVAC systems, and getting rid of drafty windows isn’t as exciting as, let’s say, coming up with a new technology that captures carbon emitted from power plants. It seems small, incremental, pedestrian. But experts say those changes can add up to something huge.

Think Green Jobs Just Involve Solar and Wind Farms? Think Again.

Robert Watson is the founding father of LEED certification, the international standard for green buildings. And he doesn’t mince words about the importance of upgrading buildings for energy efficiency. 

“Our energy infrastructure is stuck in the 20th century,” Watson said in an interview with COURIER. “We will not be able to hit the carbon targets scientists say are necessary unless we radically reduce energy consumption in our buildings.”

Although transportation is often identified as the biggest carbon-emissions culprit in the United States, Watson points out that without buildings, there is a dramatic reduction in electricity needs.

“Seventy-five to 80% of electricity goes to buildings. The power sector doesn’t emit nearly as much without buildings,” Watson said. “Buildings are by far the biggest emitters in the United States.”

Even if you can convince people that energy efficient buildings can really make a difference, the other question is: Can you really upgrade 4 million buildings in four years?

“Four million buildings is a huge number,” Watson said. “But it’s certainly doable.”

Energy Efficiency Work Could Create More Jobs Per $1 Million in Investment Than Most Other Industries

Both Eger and Watson said one of the biggest challenges to upgrading buildings is the fact that in most places in the United States, local governments control building codes.

“Our system is not set up for large-scale programs in the buildings sector without careful design—buildings are built and regulated at the local level,” Watson said. “Federal levers, through standards, are relatively weak.”

But Watson said that doesn’t mean they can’t work. He pointed to programs supported by the federal government to weatherize and upgrade appliances as “some of the most cost-effective programs out there.”

“Ramping up those programs to get us out of COVID doldrums,” Watson said. “Every dollar you spend saving a unit of energy produces twice as many jobs than a dollar into finding a new source of energy.” 

How does that work? According to a report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, energy efficiency work provides jobs in industries that typically create more jobs for less investment. For instance, $1 million in the construction industry—which would be heavily involved in retrofitting buildings for efficiency—typically creates around 20 jobs. That’s higher than the average number of jobs created with a $1 million investment in most other industries, including the energy sector.

Alexandria has experience working with the federal government, as part of the Energy Department’s “Better Buildings” program. Eger said that model—the federal government incentivizing local governments to act with the carrot of funding versus the stick of regulations—might be the most likely way a goal like 4 million buildings in four years comes to fruition.

Hundreds of Thousands of Jobs Would Be Created by an Ambitious Green Jobs Package

And with that funding comes jobs. Eger said that the 2009 stimulus package, which included billions of dollars to incentivize energy-efficient building, led to a boom in people who could do that work. But once the money ran out, the skills seemed to disappear as well.

The same cycle could play out due to the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this year, the National Association of State Energy Officials reported that energy efficiency work contributed the most new jobs within the energy sector in 2019, creating over 54,000 roles. Over the past five years, energy efficiency work has added 400,000 new jobs total to the US economy.

But at the start of the pandemic, Wendy Koch, a senior director at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy warned that furloughs and work stoppages could take their toll.

“Now that much of that work is suspended, restoring and increasing those jobs will be critical as US policymakers consider ways to shore up the economy,” Koch wrote.

And as the Brookings Institution explains in a recent paper, a true clean energy economy would employ “a vast array of workers who construct, operate, and maintain our built environment … construction workers who make buildings more energy efficient are critical to the clean energy transition.”

Based on Brookings’ analysis, a benefit to these jobs is that they are relatively high-paying work for Americans who do not have a college degree. Over 73% of construction laborers lack a college degree, compared to 33% of the general workforce. Despite that fact, though, these workers have a mean hourly wage of $20, just a few dollars less than the national mean.

Watson told COURIER that the number of workers needed now is a problem—but a good one to have in the COVID-19 economy.

“The short answer is that there are not enough skilled workers,” Watson said. “And that’s an opportunity, not just a problem. It’s a very real issue.”

He pointed to the other segments of the energy industry that have boomed recently, particularly the solar industry. Of course, that job boom will likely only come with Biden in the White House. 

The Market Is Already Demanding Energy Efficiency and Climate-Related Work

President Donald Trump hasn’t outlined any plans relating to the climate or climate-related jobs for his second term. He’s also openly derided forms of clean energy in favor of climate-harming fuels. And in the final week before Election Day, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy sent out a press release that offered no further information on climate change policies while failing to acknowledge that the industries of the future are climate-related industries. 

“If we see another Trump administration, I expect we’ll see a lot more of nothing in this regard,” Watson said. 

That wouldn’t bode well for climate-related industries. The United States and global markets are already moving toward energy-efficiency measures because they are good business. However, the market alone can’t compare to what could happen if the government got involved on the scale that the Biden plan describes.

“The good news is the market continues recognizing green buildings are better buildings. They cost less to operate; they are more comfortable, more sellable. The market doesn’t need the government to do its bit,” Watson said. “But without the government it’s only going to be the market getting a third of what you could get.”