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Reaching net-zero emissions could triple U.S. energy jobs by 2050


Reaching net-zero emissions could triple U.S. energy jobs by 2050

In most parts of the country, new green-energy jobs more than offset lost fossil-fuel employment
June 6, 2023

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Decarbonizing the U.S. economy will be a massive jobs engine, according to a new study. But the benefits won’t be automatic, highlighting the need for strong public policy to make sure energy workers get a fair deal.

Researchers know a lot about the technology changes that will be necessary to get the U.S. economy to net-zero emissions, but less about the labor market changes involved. A few studies have looked at the jobs implications of greening the electric grid, but until now no one had analyzed the employment effects of decarbonizing the whole U.S. economy.

In the new study, researchers fed publicly available energy and labor market data into a new computer model to analyze how the green transition might change the energy workforce. They evaluated four different scenarios for how the country might reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

Employment in the energy sector would increase from 2.8 million jobs in 2021 to 2.8-3.5 million in 2030 and 3.5-8.7 million in 2050, depending on the scenario, the researchers report in the journal Energy Policy. A pathway in which buildings and transportation are thoroughly electrified and the country transitions to 100% renewable electricity yields the most jobs.

In other words, decarbonizing the economy could double or even triple the number of energy jobs by midcentury, with workers to install solar panels, wind turbines, and electric transmission lines in high demand. The percentage of the workforce employed in the energy sector could increase from about 1.5% today to 2.5-5% in 2050.


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The share of the energy workforce involved in low-carbon energy would increase from about 40% to upwards of 90% by 2050, and the share employed in the fossil fuel sector would correspondingly fall.

In fact, fossil fuel jobs are likely go away even without any new climate policies or emissions targets, as coal, oil, and natural gas are increasingly outcompeted by ever-cheaper wind and solar. In the absence of any net-zero policy goals, the number of people employed in fossil fuels would decline by 40%, shifting from 60% of the energy workforce today to 40% in 2050, the researchers found.

Strong climate policies are likely to create green energy jobs throughout the country, yielding benefits for Republican- and Democrat-leaning states alike. “In most states, job losses in declining fossil fuel sectors are offset by an increasing number of energy jobs in low carbon sectors,” the researchers write. Texas, with the nation’s largest energy workforce, would experience no net job loss from the net-zero transition; its energy workforce would simply shift from about 80% fossil fuel employment to 80% green energy employment.

But these broad benefits do obscure some local and short-term losses. North Dakota, site of a recent natural gas boom, would see a net decrease in energy jobs in the net-zero transition. West Virginia, a traditional coal-mining state, would experience an initial decline in energy jobs by 2030, but a net increase by 2050. “As the economy decarbonizes, we find that there are acute job losses in specific communities where mining has historically been the dominant employer,” the researchers write.

Moreover, in many cases the new green-energy jobs won’t be exactly the same kind of work as the fossil-fuel jobs they replace. There will be fewer mining jobs, and more construction jobs. Salaries may be slightly lower, because construction tends not to pay as well as the fossil-fuel industry. The new jobs may also be in somewhat different places than the old ones.

All this means that energy workers won’t automatically reap the benefits of the net-zero push, and it will take policies at all levels of government to ensure a just transition. But such policies are possible, the researchers argue. “Siting flexibility can be leveraged to facilitate political coalitions and bargaining. It can further offset job losses in specific communities and take advantage of local labor supply,” the researchers write. “For example, siting of solar manufacturing in historical coal-mining regions can be incentivized; this could leverage local workforces that may not be mobile and overall moderate negative local economic impacts,” they write.

Source: Mayfield E. et al.  “Labor pathways to achieve net-zero emissions in the United States by mid-century” Energy Policy 2023.

Top Image: Kecko via Flickr.

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