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Q&A: Where are all the "green" jobs? Economist Ned Hill sheds some light

 Edward W. Hill, Dean and Professor at Cleveland State University's Maxine Goodman Levin College.
Edward W. Hill, Dean and Professor at Cleveland State University's Maxine Goodman Levin College.

Green jobs. Everybody is for them, it seems. But try to define a green job, and the term becomes elusive. A person who puts together solar panels using clean processes certainly has a green job. But if an autoworker assembles a gas-guzzler one day and a plug-in electric car the next, does he or she have a green job? To get a better handle on what green jobs are and where they might have the most impact on Ohio's economy, hiVelocity spoke to leading economist Edward W. (Ned) Hill, Distinguished Scholar of Economic Development and dean of Cleveland State University's Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs.

What is a green job?

Anything that Jim Henson's Muppets puts on is a green job! Often in public policy discussions people search for an optimal term that everyone can use but they often don't know what it means. I tend to think pretty specifically about these things. And if you look at the state of Ohio, we have more than 100 years of green jobs. One of the best examples is Davey tree service. They take care of everything from start to finish and find a way to get value out of every part of the tree.

Organizations like The Pew Trusts and the U.S. Green Building Council have tried to quantify the growth in the green economy, but they looked at very specific areas -- like clean energy, energy efficiency, and green building construction. Is it possible to assess the economic impact of green initiatives as a whole?

Most of the job studies are speculative. I don't expect to see a large shift until the price of fossil fuels goes up. Until then, a lot of this will be lip service.

Elaborate on that thought.

The two big buckets that I see are in energy production and housing retrofit. Some are throwing in transportation infrastructure construction jobs (such as new rail), but I don't buy that one. I'm all for what the Governor did (a proposal to build new rail between Ohio's major cities), but the fact is until the price of gas goes up people are still going to be driving cars. We're also so coal-dependent for our energy. Jobs in areas like wind and solar are affected by a lack of price (for fossil fuels) or subsidies in those energy areas. There is some action around companies like First Solar in the Toledo area. There's lots of positioning and jockeying around regarding wind, but there's no action.

Will the energy carve-outs contained in the Ohio's recent energy legislation help?

The advanced and alternative energy carve-out IS the thing that can drive jobs in these areas. But at this point, we still haven't seen it. When financing shows up, the carve-out is going to give us a set of green energy jobs. But it's not all going to come from wind and solar. Right now, most of our energy is produced by coal. But going forward, there will be some sort of cap and trade, or carbon capture regulation. Coal is going to become increasingly difficult to use. So, over a 20-year period, what's going to replace coal? Gas is going to be filling some of the need. Nuclear is definitely a fuel that will be considered. But Ohio has a poor history of nuclear plant management. Will voters, or Ohio residents, be comfortable with the management and safety of nuclear plants? The policy decision is whether the future will be in nuclear or natural gas. Ohio, at some point, has to suck it up and realize that coal is not our future.

What about President Obama's green jobs initiative? Will that be helpful?

Some of the money we will have at the state level, especially for building retrofitting, that's going to be helpful.

Some critics of green initiatives, specifically energy initiatives, say the jobs created will be relatively low-paying and may lead to job losses in traditional energy sectors. Do you agree?

The big energy suppliers are not going to voluntarily go out of business. The big issue is whether natural gas is going to replace coal (for electricity production) and the notion of clean coal as a renewable. Coal gasification doesn't make any sense at all (because of the resources it requires). I do think we will see more distributed energy systems (such as fuel cells), which don't rely on large generation facilities. That may be where Ohio's future is.

Any predictions about where the most green jobs will come from in the next five years or so?

The wild card is on the transportation infrastructure side. A lot of predicted jobs come from the notion of a denser transportation infrastructure. But I don't think politically we're going to increase the motor fuel tax to a European or Japanese level. And I also think the notion of a much denser transportation-oriented state is not going to take place. America will drive smaller and lighter cars, but people will still be driving cars. The only alternative energy retrofit for houses that makes sense at all right now is for solar hot water. For other types of alternative energy, prices have to come down. Most of the green jobs in housing are now in traditional energy efficiency. I actually think where we're going to see a big change in building technology is where distributed energy (buildings using fuel cells) becomes financially feasible. In the long run, the only thing that will grow green energy jobs is lots of regulation. The thing that's creating the market right now is the law -- it's not the price.

It sounds like you don't think, as a general rule, the term green job has much meaning except to the extent that it drives public policy discussions.

If I were in the PR business, I'd make everything a green job. One day, a guy who's a carpenter will install a drywall and he's a carpenter; the next day he will be a green carpenter because he has installed a solar panel. However, it's a useful term to convey an image. It drives politics, drives hope and gives us a vision of what the future could look like.

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