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As clean energy jobs recover, can they lift left-behind U.S. communities?

By Jack Graham

April 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Whether in building electric cars or making homes more energy efficent, clean energy jobs are rapidly recovering from the COVID-19 downturn and could help support rural and other left-behind U.S. communities, a business analysis has found.

Although such jobs fell to 3 million in 2020 from 3.36 million in 2019, the sector has rebounded faster than the overall U.S. economy, noted the survey of U.S. firms by environmental business group E2.

Three times more people now work in clean energy jobs in the United States than in fossil fuel extraction and production, the report said, with the strongest growth in wind energy and electric vehicles.

But with often well-paid gas, oil and coal jobs declining, particularly in some communities with few other job options, those displaced will need help – something President Joe Biden’s administration has promised.

“We’re going to invest in the communities left behind,” Gina McCarthy, Biden’s national climate advisor, said during an online event this week ahead of the president’s planned international climate summit Thursday and Friday.

“Workers are in transition in many communities in the United States, and we want them to have access to good jobs where they live,” she said.

In some areas that may not be as difficult as feared, analysts said. From 2017 to 2019, clean energy jobs grew more quickly in rural areas than in cities, according to the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

While they represent 2% of total private sector employment in the United States, they make up more than 10% in rural Midwestern areas such as Pulaski County in Illinois and Jefferson County in Nebraska, E2 noted.

Available land for onshore wind and solar projects can help make rural areas attractive for clean energy investors – but many communities remain at the “hurting end” of the transition, said Jason Walsh, head of the BlueGreen Alliance, which advocates for good-quality jobs and environmental protection.

In an online event, he said some regions, including traditional coal-mining communities in Appalachia in the eastern United States, need targeted investment to create alternative well-paid jobs.

“We have to choose to invest in the economic diversification of these communities and dislocated workers,” Walsh said.

He noted that, on average, a fossil fuel job still pays better than a clean energy job, in part because more fossil fuel jobs are unionized.

As part of his “American Jobs Plan,” Biden has calledfor a $40 billion investment to help dislocated workers, including stepped-up retraining programs.

‘GHOST TOWNS’

The state of Colorado has created the first state-level agency to deal with such displacement – the Colorado Office of Just Transition – aimed at helping about 2,500 coal workers find new jobs.

“Colorado is already littered with ghost towns, as I know the Midwest is with shuttered factories and mills,” said Dennis Dougherty, executive director of the Colorado AFL-CIO, a branch of the largest U.S. labor federation.

He said local communities need to make their own decisions about how to support workers but federal resources were needed to make the plans work.

Colorado’s plan to transition its coal workers will cost more than $100 million to implement, backers estimate, including financial support for workers and for local communities who could see property taxes they depend on plummet when plants close.

Still, new clean energy jobs are emerging for those with the skills to manage them.

Bob Keefe, the executive director of E2, said many clean energy companies are struggling to find enough workers with the right training.

The country already has more clean energy workers than real estate agents, farmers or bankers, his organization noted.

“They’re not blue state jobs, they’re not red state jobs,” Keefe said. “These are red, white and blue jobs.”

(Reporting by Jack Graham; Editing by Laurie Goering and Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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