This is part two of my chapter, “Green jobs in a sustainable economy”, published recently in the book “Mandate for Change”. You can also read part one, in which I discuss the first three ways in which to create an environmentally sustainable economy.
Fourth, in the United States today, about two-thirds of our electricity and one-third of our natural gas is used within residential and commercial buildings. Heating and cooling accounts for almost all of the natural gas use in commercial and residential buildings, and accounts for 30 percent of all electrical use in the country. And those natural gas and electric bills are going up, threatening to make life miserable for tens of millions of households in winters or summers.
Decreasing the heating and cooling needs of buildings would therefore lead to significant reductions in carbon emissions and lower energy bills. Thus, retrofitting old buildings, making them more energy-efficient, and constructing sustainable buildings will be essential occupations in a green society.
If buildings were able to heat and cool themselves, enough electric generation could be eliminated, and enough natural gas could be diverted into electricity generation, that all coal plants could be shut down. This could be achieved in a number of ways: first, by installing geothermal heat pumps under buildings in order to take care of heating and cooling needs; second, by installing solar photovoltaic systems, for direct electrical heating and cooling, or in order to power the geothermal heat pumps; third, by installing solar thermal units for heating needs; or some combination of the three, which would probably involve battery storage in the building. In other words, to a significant extent, buildings can become energy self-reliant.
Millions of green-collar jobs would be needed for these programs. Within metropolitan areas, low-income neighborhoods can provide much of the labor for turning urban buildings into carbon-neutral structures, as has been mandated in the Green Collar Jobs Bill, which will create a Pathways out of Poverty program. For too long, people from outside low-income areas have been the beneficiaries of construction there, so it is imperative that labor pools hired to create sustainable buildings in low-income areas be filled by the residents of those neighborhoods.
The two roadblocks to self-reliant buildings are financing and skilled labor. An Infrastructure Bank could help overcome both problems. It could follow the lead of the City of Berkeley, which offers loans to homeowners to install solar photovoltaic panels, paying back the loan with the savings from lower electricity bills. The Bank could overcome the second problem by overseeing training institutes for green-collar jobs. Eventually, as in transportation, all building construction jobs could be green-collar jobs.
Fifth, while buildings could provide much of the energy for their own needs, in order to green the energy sector we would need wind- and solar-based electricity generated at the metropolitan level in order to help minimize the use of coal and natural gas. Local electric authorities could establish region-based, medium-sized renewable electrical systems.
Many metropolitan areas have been creating a ,community choice aggregation, or CCA. In a CCA, the metropolitan government uses its power to control the electrical distribution in its territory to contract out the generation of electricity to an energy-service provider (ESP), who is usually required to provide a certain percentage of electricity from solar and wind energy, as well as from conservation. For example, San Francisco is requiring its ESP to provide 103 MW (megawatts) from distributed renewables, mostly PV (solar voltaics) on buildings; 150 MW from a wind farm; and 107 MW from conservation and efficiency. That should constitute 51 percent of San Francisco’s electricity needs.
If CCAs or other kinds of urban electric authorities (such as municipal utilities) spread throughout the country, it would create a perfect opportunity to use labor trained in the metropolitan area to install and maintain the energy systems.
Note that conservation and efficiency can be considered a part of the energy mix, creating a great potential for local employment. A local government could hire thousands of energy auditors to help building owners maximize the energy potential of their buildings. In addition, a “smart grid” can be installed in each region, allowing the local ESP to rationally run or shut down appliances within a building depending on the price of electricity at particular points in time; this will require more service personnel to make sure that the system lives up to its potential.
Sixth, even with building- and metropolitan-based energy systems, the needs of an electrified transportation system would require a national system of solar and wind facilities; in addition, the capability to access electricity from anywhere in the country helps insure that everybody will always have electricity, even if the local sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing. A National Electric Authority could be established with two main responsibilities: rebuild the national electric grid, and help create large, long-distance concentrated solar power (CSP) and wind farms.
The current national electric grid, which moves electricity from power plants to the industrial, commercial and residential buildings were the electricity is used, is in desperate need of repair. Each piece is owned by a different utility, and the regulatory environment is such that there is little incentive to maintain it, much less upgrade it to the level that will be required to add rich sources of wind and solar energy. In addition, an authority would need to build a system of high-voltage direct current (HVDC) lines, which would be a more efficient way to move electricity from large-scale renewable energy sources to the rest of the country.
The American Southwest contains enough solar energy potential to supply all of the electricity for the entire country. The Great Plains, such as North Dakota or parts of Texas, likewise contains enough wind power potential to fill all of our current electrical needs, and then some.9 A National Electric Authority could oversee the construction of large-scale CSP, wind farms and the upgrading of the national grid.
The labor trained by the Institutes could help to install and maintain these large-scale systems. The creation of a continent-wide, high-tech electric grid, fed by carbon-free energy sources, would create millions of high-skilled green jobs. In combination with the building and metropolitan energy systems, the energy sector could be transformed from an environmentally damaging industry into a completely green-collar one.