Trained for Green

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), November 26, 2010 | Go to article overview

Trained for Green


Byline: Michael A. Fletcher The Washington Post

OCALA, Fla. After losing his way in the old economy, Laurance Anton tried to ensure his place in the new one by signing up for green jobs training earlier this year at his local community college.

Anton has been out of work since 2008, when his job as a surveyor vanished with Florida's once-sizzling housing market. After a futile search, at age 56 he reluctantly returned to school to learn the kind of job skills the Obama administration is wagering will soon fuel an employment boom: solar installation, sustainable landscape design, recycling and green demolition.

Anton said the classes, funded with a $2.9 million federal grant to Ocala's work force development organization, have taught him a lot. He's learned how to apply Ohm's law, how to solder tiny components on circuit boards and how to disassemble rather than demolish a building.

The only problem is that his new skills have not resulted in a single job offer. Officials who run Ocala's green jobs training program say the same is true for three-quarters of their first 100 graduates.

"I think I have put in 200 applications," said Anton, who exhausted his unemployment benefits months ago and now relies on food stamps and his dwindling savings to survive. "I'm long past the point where I need some regular income."

With nearly 15 million Americans out of work and the unemployment rate hovering above 9 percent for 18 consecutive months, policymakers desperate to stoke job creation have bet heavily on green energy. The Obama administration channeled more than $90 billion from the $814 billion economic stimulus bill into clean energy technology, confident that the investment would grow into the economy's next big thing.

The infusion of money is going to projects such as weatherizing public buildings and constructing advanced battery plants in the industrial Midwest, financing solar electric plants in the Mojave Desert and training green energy workers.

But the huge federal investment has run headlong into the stubborn reality that the market for renewable energy products and workers remains in its infancy. The administration says that its stimulus investment has saved or created 225,000 jobs in the green energy industry, a pittance in an economy that has shed 7.5 million jobs since the recession took hold in December 2007.

The industry's growth has been undercut by the simple economic fact that fossil fuels remain cheaper than renewables. Both Obama administration officials and green energy executives say that the business needs not just government incentives, but also rules and regulations that force people and business to turn to renewable energy.

Without government mandates dictating how much renewable energy utilities must use to generate electricity, or placing a price on the polluting carbon emitted by fossil fuels, they say, green energy

cannot begin to reach its job creation potential.

"We keep getting these stops and starts in the industry. There is no way it can work like this," said Bill Gallagher, president of Solar-Fit, a Florida energy company whose fortunes have fluctuated with government incentives in its 35 years in business.

Like many people who run renewable energy companies, Gallagher said he sees no need to expand his 25-employee firm because the business is simply not there.

Although 29 states have enacted laws setting benchmarks for the amount of energy utilities must generate from renewable sources such as wind and solar, the standards vary greatly. And with a new congressional majority poised to take office including many members elected pledging to reduce Washington's role in the economy it remains an open question whether new federal regulations that would support expansion of the industry would be enacted anytime soon.

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