The Green Job conundrum

July 7, 2011
Does someone you know sweep floors or clean toilets for a living? If so, they may be holding down a “green energy job.”

Does someone you know sweep floors or clean toilets for a living? If so, they may be holding down a “green energy job.”

This idea might sound odd until you understand there is no universally accepted definition of a job that is environmentally “green.” If you are talking about a job in the eyes of the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, our example above could well be true. The BLS bases its assessments of a “green” job on “the good or service produced or the production process used” and not on the skills of the people in the plant. So someone providing janitorial services in an LED light-bulb factory has a green job as far as the BLS is concerned.

And the BLS definition of green jobs isn’t the most expansive you’ll find. The United Nations Environment Programme claims people working in companies that supply parts to the green-energy industry have green jobs. That definition leads to outright contradictions. For example, a significant amount of steel and cement goes into the base and tower of a wind turbine. According to UNEP, that makes jobs producing cement and steel for wind turbines “green,” despite the fact that steel making is energy intensive, and that cement is responsible for 5% of all greenhouse gases emitted worldwide.

Interestingly, you could use UNEP’s argument to extend the “green energy job” label to workers in the hazardous-waste business. The production of photovoltaic solar cells uses toxic materials that include cadmium, selenium, silicon tetrachloride, and sulfur hexafluoride. And it generates hazardous wastes that include cyanides and heavy metals, spent solvents that are flammable, and other chemicals that demand special handling. Some might even say the generation of such by-products is a rationale for claiming the PV industry isn’t green at all. Apparently, though, that doesn’t bother the United Nations.

Even people who burn wood to generate energy are engaged in green energy jobs, at least according to a report from The U. S. Conference of Mayors and the Mayors Climate Protection Center. This report lumps wood burning in with the use of other types of biomass for fuel — corn-based ethanol and landfill gas to name just two. The irony, of course, is that green energy is promoted in the name of reducing greenhouse gases, but wood burning produces plenty of GHG and a lot of pollution to boot. In fact, the U. S. EPA has cited several metropolitan areas for bad air quality and names wood stoves as one culprit for the problem.

Ambiguity about “green” jobs wouldn’t be important except that politicians often haul out the term when they want to promote legislation benefiting causes they favor. The usual claim is that taxpayer dollars thrown at “green” subsidies and at “green” job training is well spent. But if the impact of environmental protection bills is any guide, that’s debatable. Consultants at Management Information Services Inc. looked at the environmental industry in six states to determine what kinds of jobs it created. They found that most of the jobs were ordinary: accountants, factory workers, computer analysts, clerks, and so forth. Only a few were for highly paid specialists.

All in all, there are plenty of reasons taxpayers should look for hidden agendas when the political debate turns to “green” jobs. But with an unemployment rate still north of 9%, a lot of people would be happy with a job of any color so long as the money it pays is green.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

© 2011 Penton Media, Inc.

About the Author

Leland Teschler

Lee Teschler served as Editor-in-Chief of Machine Design until 2014. He holds a B.S. Engineering from the University of Michigan; a B.S. Electrical Engineering from the University of Michigan; and an MBA from Cleveland State University. Prior to joining Penton, Lee worked as a Communications design engineer for the U.S. Government.

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