A Free-Market Energy Blog

"Green Job" Fallacies (Part II: What is a 'Green' Job?)

By -- September 29, 2011

Even if there were a usable model to analyze job creation, we are left with the problem of identifying which jobs are actually “green.”  A renewable project can result in the employment of technical personnel trained to specialize in operating or maintaining its technology (whom we presume are green), as well as additional bartenders who will help the workers to enjoy their evenings (harder to classify as green).

The matter is important because any type of governmental or private spending might open up slots for bartenders.  Renewable technologies, however, have been viewed as the foundation for a massive increase in skilled workers whose human capital will provide them with higher lifelong earnings.

Two recent studies point up that the choice of definitions can affect estimates of the green workforce, and show that an extremely small fraction of jobs defined as green are in renewables.

Brookings Study: Bus Drivers, Trashmen “Green’

The Brookings Institution recently estimated 2.7 million jobs associated with the “clean economy.”  The categories include “Agricultural and Natural Resources Conservation” (18.9 %), “Regulation and Compliance” (5.3%), “Energy and Resource Efficiency” (31.0%), and “Greenhouse Gas Reduction, Environmental Management, and Recycling” (39.6%).[1]

The clean economy expands its bounds by creative classification.  Thus we find that energy efficiency includes 350,000 people in public mass transit, mostly bus drivers, and environmental management includes 386,000 people in waste management, formerly known as trash disposal.

The researchers chose not to use an alternative definition that would have been far more helpful to most readers:  how many clean jobs have (or will) come into being as a result of recent and proposed energy, environmental and climate regulations?  (And, of course, how many others will vanish.)

Some additional insight is possible when we consider the Brookings’ final category.  “Renewable Energy” contains 138,000 clean jobs, only 5.1 percent of the total.  If we subtract the 55,000 of them in hydropower, which most data sources class as nonrenewable, the figure is down to 84,000, or 3.1 percent of all clean jobs.  29,000 of this remainder are in solar (thermal and photovoltaic), which accounts for under 1 percent of actual renewable power production.  24,000 more are in wind (17.4 percent of renewable power workers and under 1 percent of total clean workers).[2]

Even if we are willing to assume very large “multipliers” from renewable power, its impact on employment will be trivial, whether taken as a fraction of all energy, clean economy jobs, or the entire labor force.

Washington State Study

A second study was performed by the Washington State Employment Security Department, entitled 2009 Washington State Green Economy Jobs (Mar. 2010).

Environmental awareness is high, and renewable energy (non-hydro) is a significant presence in this state. The study’s four base categories are:

[1] Increasing energy efficiency

[2] Producing renewable energy

[3] Preventing and reducing environmental pollution, and

[4] Providing mitigation or cleanup of pollution.[3]

Like Brookings, a significant fraction of the study’s identified “green” workers are bus drivers, trash handlers and the like.  The Washington data show that renewable energy occupies 3,464 workers, 3.5 percent of the state’s 99,979 green jobs.[4]  Its current wind capacity is 2,357 MW, ranking it sixth among the states.[5]

Washington is one of the most active states in wind investment and production, but still only a small percentage of its green workforce works with renewables, including wind.  The Washington study’s authors further note that  “construction-relat­ed industries and occupations, as well as professional and techni­cal services occupations, accounted for the majority of all [renewable] positions.[6]

The majority of these jobs are in manufacturing and construction.  Per project, both are short-lived, and once in operation “most renewable energy facilities operate with a relatively small number of operations and maintenance employees….  The proportion of part-time positions is higher for renewable energy than for any other private-sector core area (35 percent).”[7]

Both the Brookings and the Washington data tell similar stories.  Green or clean jobs are not objectively definable, and cases like the bus drivers tell us that they are easy to inflate.  Under both studies’ definitions, renewable power jobs are small fractions of the total, and most will be short-lived construction work performed in the main by people with skills that are usable in almost any type of project.

Washington’s wind units produce a higher fraction of the state’s power than those of most other states, but their existence has not created any discernible difference in Washington’s labor market performance.  Similarly, it appears that most of the solar work force is in construction, where opportunities will diminish with the growth of installations.  The past three years have led many to question the federal government’s ability to create new employment and the odd logic that lies behind that hope.


The data from the above studies should make it clear to both believers and nonbelievers that renewable power is a singularly inappropriate and ineffective way to increase employment.

The public policy implications are clear: the invisible jobs from consumer-driven decisions should be contrasted with the visible bubble jobs of special government favor.


[1] Mark Muro, et al. Sizing the Clean Economy:  A National and Regional Green Jobs Assessment(Brookings Institution, 2011).

[2]Brookings’ authors note (at 12) that the American Wind Energy Association claims 30,000 “direct” workers and the Solar Energy Industries Association 24,000, roughly the same as the Brookings figures.

[3] Washington State Employment Security Department, 2009 Washington State Green Economy Jobs (Mar. 2010), 5.  Brookings notes (at 14) that its total is approximately 19 percent higher than its own on a per capita basis.

[4]Calculated from Washington State Employment Security Department, 15 and 21.

[5] American Wind Energy Association, Wind Energy Facts: Washington(August 2011).  Washington has very little non-wind renewable capacity.

[6]Washington State Employment Security Department, 7.

[7] Washington State Employment Security Department, 30.


  1. john  

    I believe that specialized accountants or firms get a nice chunk of all that money. Prolific LLC’s used for creative accounting methods (REPO 105’s etc.). Well done article and Jon’s comments in part 1 are priceless.


  2. Jon Boone  

    Your belief is well founded. Just look at the array of pundits–economists, avian experts (some of whom travel the country from wind project to wind project, making the bulk of their living as a wind pundit), bat scientists, engineers–that a wind LLC assembles to testify in favor of a wind application before regulatory commissions. I’ve even seen priests, rabbis, and health profession brought in to testify for wind projects before regulatory hearings. Surely they are counted in the pool of green jobs.


  3. Kermit  

    Why were not solar panels installed at remote pipeline metering stations (miles away for the electric power grid) called “green jobs” 10 years or more ago? Control valves and instrumentation which require milliamps and 24 VDC really do not require enough power to justify installing a generator.


  4. “Green Job” Fallacies (Part II: What is a ‘Green’ Job?) | JunkScience Sidebar  

    […] “Green Job” Fallacies (Part II: What is a ‘Green’ Job?) by Robert Michaels September 29, 2011 […]


  5. Thomas T S Watson  

    I wonder who will be winning this discussion in ten years time.
    There are may who believe, as I do, that the Sun decides what seasonal changes we experience.
    On or near the 22nd. December, 2012. our Sun’s Heliosphere will be influencing our Earth when it enters the Negative Magnetic sectors of the Sun’s Heliosphere, and when this occurs, our seasons will begin to revert back to what was accepted as normal, after 1978.
    Yes!, our season has changed and Carbon Dioxide has had little to no effect to change this current season.
    CO2 will always rise at its current rate of rise, and will continue for at least another one hundred years, rising at the same rate as of today.
    Our Human race will not be able to alter this happening even if every human stopped breathing out.

    Our Sun is NOT switching its magnetic polarity. Our Earth has a Spiral Orbital pattern that oscillates between the magnetic poles of our Sun, like our Moon’s spiral orbital pattern that is Oscillating between the poles, here on Earth.
    Once science gets back to what is factual and true and reminds the public what is actually happening, the better for everyone. We must all become patients of our Earth and accept what nature is dealing up to us all. And please do not get me wrong. I am the first to accept change for the betterment of mankind, one only has to look back on history to realize the we have made excellent progress in one thing and another. Just look at our current living standards today and look back at history and observe how they loved two hundred years ago.
    We all have had in impact in one way or anther, in this progress, so let us not forget that our history had an important factor and value that must be kept, for without this history, we would never have been able to exercise this discussion.


  6. Obama’s Orwellian overture « The Enterprise Blog  

    […] For this, the ad cites a Brookings Institute study on the green economy, and misrepresents it utterly. First of all, the Brookings study looked at all jobs they could define as “green jobs,” which were overwhelmingly not jobs in the clean energy industry, and included about 350,000 bus drivers, and another 380,000 trash collectors. […]


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