If you believed what politicians say about green energy and jobs, you probably think they fit together like peanut butter and jelly squished between layers of bread. Has there been a renewable power subsidy announcement or ribbon-cutting ceremony where the word “jobs” was not featured in the first two or three sentences uttered by politicians? When it comes to public policy, job counting is the new measure of policy.
So in the outer suburbs of Phoenix, Queen Creek town officials counted up the jobs associated with a couple of solar power projects proposed to occupy a large bit of their industrially-zoned property with the help of some town economic development funds. Turns out it doesn’t take a lot of people to maintain a large-scale PV power system, and they’re mostly low level maintenance workers. The jobs-counting is giving the town second thoughts about the projects.
Now, in some big-picture, overall costs-and-benefits, thorough and balanced look at energy technologies, that it doesn’t take a lot of highly paid professionals to operate a PV solar power facility is a good thing. It is one of the reason that PV power has such a low marginal cost of operation. But in the kookier world where local economic development, renewable power rhetoric, and taxpayer subsidies collide, jobs are counted as benefits and then the analysis stops.
Two comments: First, PV power remains more expensive than alternative sources of power even admitting the presence of larger external costs for fossil-fueled power plants. We likely would be better off if money currently being used to build solar projects now were spent on additional research instead. Queen Creek may be on the right track, even if for the wrong reason. Solar advocates are promising that grid-parity is just around the corner, so why are we wasting money building inefficient projects now instead of spending that money on getting us around that corner?
Second, the number of jobs a policy is expected to create has very little relevance to the evaluation of public policy proposals. Mostly what matters is whether the benefits of a policy proposal exceed the projected costs (plus, you know, those old-fashioned ideas about the proper scope of government and trying not to infringe on people’s rights).
Environmental economist John Whitehead is right to hope that environmental policy creates few jobs, because, as he explains, it would mean that businesses have found lower cost ways to get cleaner air and water.