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The Green Collar Economy

by Van Jones (2008)

The manufacturing sector is undergoing a global shift. While automation and increased competition may be encouraging productivity and stimulating output, the costs of traditional manufacturing in developed economies is exerting negative pressure, forcing a migration of sorts. The decline of the auto manufacturing sector in Detroit, coined the Rust Belt, the slowing of the European manufacturing heartland, and the recent plant closures in Southern Ontario all point to an economic shift, as these industries relocate elsewhere.

At the same time, there is a realistic case to be made for decentralizing our energy grid and focusing on community-based renewable energy generation. Instead of large-scale coal, gas, and nuclear plants with distribution networks that stretch across kilometers, a shift to renewable energy production at a more local scale would increase independence and reliability.

So how is the shift in the manufacturing sector connected to the need for an investment in renewables?

In his book The Green Collar Economy, Van Jones suggests that the shift in traditional manufacturing is actually an opportunity for a new ‘green collar’ workforce to be created through the advancement of the renewable energy sector. This new workforce would build on the technical skill of the existing manufacturing sector, whose experts would be retrained and repurposed and act as a catalyst around which the decentralization of our energy grid would occur.

From a skillset perspective, the change is fairly straightforward. Instead of an electronics technician wiring headlights, they’re wiring solar panels or wind turbines; instead of an assembly line worker welding supports on a chassis, they’re welding mounting brackets on a solar panel; instead of a quality control technician checking the door operator assembly, they’re checking the rotation and calibration of a wind turbine’s fins. The technical skills are similar if not the same between this old and new workforce, however they are applied to a different end-product. What we would need, however, would be hands on training and apprenticeship opportunities with this technology in the field.

From an infrastructure perspective, the needs of this new green manufacturing sector would be very similar to the old. Large manufacturing plants for assembly lines, demand for manufacturing equipment and a technically-skilled workforce, and transportation and distribution networks are commonalities between sectors. As old manufacturing shifts away, the new green manufacturing sector can use the tools and systems left behind and in place with minimal repurposing.

But why focus on renewable energy systems?

Jones argues that the potential in a reformulated energy generation and distribution network focused around the renewable energy sector offers numerous social, political, economic, and even security advantages. Renewable energy production systems are more modular, and are able to expand or contract with demand fairly easily, unlike current methods of energy generation, which require excessive capital expenditure, as well as a guaranteed increase in demand. Because renewables are modular, they are able to be located and sized to suit demand, resulting in a significant savings in both the manufacture and distribution of the energy they generate. And as modular systems, they are more difficult to disrupt, especially if they include diverse energy sources such as solar, wind, and solar thermal.

Renewable energy technology, like photovoltaic panels, may be the catalyst for the emergence of a new manufacturing sector. Not blue or white collar, but rather a combination of the best of both.
Renewable energy technology, like photovoltaic panels, may hold the key to a new manufacturing sector.

Imagine, a new community development with each new home equipped with a solar array on their roof, small-scale vertical axis wind turbines around the periphery, and photovoltaics incorporated into shading structures and canopies in local parks and on the roofs of local businesses. Several of these businesses could even be related to the manufacture of ancillary components to the renewable energy grid itself. All tied to a central energy network housed within and run by the community.

The resilience of this community would be impressive. While extreme weather events would still pose a risk, these weather events would be limited to those that occur directly to the community, rather than anywhere along the current distribution grid. Plus with every home and business acting as a modular producer within a localized grid, downtimes due to maintenance and upgrades would be negligible. And a reliable, regular demand for ancillary products and services would minimize risk and encourage further investment in improved efficiency.

Although a bit out of date, and with a significant focus on American politics and economics,  the shift that Jones envisions is still relevant today.  And better still, it isn’t as far off as one might think.

Renewable technology is currently available for virtually all applications at a variety of scales, whether that be a single home, business, or community. And with the success and popularity of renewable incentive programs in recent years, a skilled and knowledgeable workforce trained in the installation and maintenance of renewables is growing. When combined with the adoption of the global climate change agreement at COP21 in Paris this year, along with recent announcements from various levels of government committing investment into Cleantech research, a shift may actually be underway.