By Henry Richardson, analyst, WattTime
These have been dark days for job-hunters in coal country, even when the sun’s shining. Fortunately there’s new potential now that more clean energy jobs could be on the way in communities feeling the impacts of coal’s decline — both directly and indirectly. A new renewable investment principle, “emissionality,” is inspiring investors to look not only at the baseline view of how much wind and solar is being added to the grid, but also at the deeper impact of where it’s being added. And this strategic shift could have a major impact in coal country, as well as other often-red states that may not have seen as much renewable investment as their blue-state neighbors.
The deepening climate crisis has been motivating venture leaders to step up their renewables procurement programs. This is especially true of major corporations and increasingly of public-sector and higher education organizations, too. For example, between Jan. 1 and Aug. 28, 2019, the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance tracked 3.80 GW of power purchase agreements (PPAs) and similar deals for large-scale, off-site renewable energy, with 38 projects contracted by 25 companies across more than a dozen states. This follows a record-setting 2018, during which corporations contracted more than 6 GW of big wind and solar.
Such investments are helping drive clean energy job growth in many local economies, with clean sector jobs flourishing in blue states, particularly those with existing renewables. California, for instance, is home to one out of every seven clean energy jobs in the United States today. And as blue states adopt more-ambitious climate laws, they only create more natural pathways for continued clean sector investment in a virtuous self-reinforcing feedback loop.
A few red states have also fared well in the clean energy revolution — note the positive momentum wind energy has seen in Texas and the High Plains (especially in the Southwest Power Pool balancing area). But more often than not, many traditionally red states have been left behind by large-scale renewable investment. According to the Solar Foundation’s 2018 Solar Jobs Census, red states rank amongst the lowest in the country, with coal-capital West Virginia clocking in at 49th in terms of solar jobs per capita, and Kentucky, at 42nd. Their neighbor to the south, Tennessee, fairs better at 16th. But blue and purple states overall still account for 7 of the top 10 for solar jobs.
It’s going to take more than just favorable state policy to change this dynamic and expand the playing field to areas that could also benefit, and support, the transition to a nationwide clean energy economy. And that’s where emissionality comes in.
To understand how this new principle will help bring additional investment — and in turn, job opportunities — to underlooked areas, it’s useful to begin with a closer look at what we mean by emissionality.
Emissionality 101: Why it matters where clean energy is added
Unlike the traditional procurement approach of treating all renewable energy as equal, the truth is that where you build projects matters. Is a new wind farm being added where the grid is already saturated with wind and solar? Or, is a new renewable energy project being built in a location such that it displaces fossil-fueled coal- and gas-fired generation?
Asking such questions can drive up the positive impact of corporate renewable energy procurement by prompting investors to quantify the fossil-fueled emissions a given wind or solar project will displace on the regional electricity grid. After all, it stands to reason that investing in a region where the supply is mostly dirty coal-fired generation will naturally displace more emissions than in a region whose grid mix is already rich in wind or solar.
But data shows this is more than intuitive conjecture. My colleagues and I found that, by geographically redistributing annual corporate wind and solar procurement to optimize locations for avoided emissions, corporations could wrangle 34% more avoided emissions out of those same renewable investments. Using 2017’s procurement data, these investments could avert an additional 2.5 million metric tons of emissions — the equivalent of pulling more than 540,000 cars off the road. This is possible while holding total megawatts of new wind and solar constant, simply by better siting where we build new projects to displace more fossil-fueled generation.
In other words, the team found that some renewable investments in this realm do mean more than others on an emissions basis. Here’s a case in point: By leveraging WattTime’s real-time data on emissions profiles for nationwide power plants, Boston University learned that investing in a renewable energy project in South Dakota would have two- to three-times more positive emissions impact than a project anywhere in New England could.
BU was an early adopter, but there’s promising evidence that emissionality is gaining momentum further afield, too.
In Tennessee, for instance, startup Clearloop is rewriting the playbook to offer renewables-based emissions offsets at the product level, rather than the industry norm of providing renewable PPAs on a straightforward MWh basis against the organization’s overall electricity consumption.
Founded by three Tennesseans, including former governor Phil Bredesen, Clearloop aims to bring the benefits of renewable energy to all communities around the country equally, particularly those “in our own backyard that are getting left behind.”
Corporations seeking to become 100% renewably powered typically look at their total MWh of annual electricity consumption, and then invest in wind and solar PPAs such that the generation output of those new renewable energy projects fully offsets corporate electricity use. Clearloop takes a different approach, by allowing companies to offset their climate impact on a product level and doing so on an emissions basis (rather than a MWh basis). In order to give their customers the best deal (the most avoided emissions per renewable energy dollar invested), this naturally lends itself to putting emissionality into practice.
And that ends up serendipitously shining a spotlight on Clearloop’s own backyard: Tennessee and other legacy coal-country states that haven’t seen as much renewable energy investment to date, but who should if investors start prioritizing wind and solar projects in places that still have the dirtiest grids. Which in turn can help to bring the clean energy economic revolution — and its jobs — to those same places suffering from coal’s ongoing decline.
Granted, accounting for emissionality is not yet a conventional approach, but it is gaining recognition as a potentially potent factor in corporate renewable investment decision-making. And as more investors recognize that better siting of new wind and solar projects means deepened reductions in grid emissions, more clean energy development opportunities — and employment — will emerge, too.
What emissionality means for jobs
Geographically speaking, the clean energy economy has been something of a hit-or-miss affair, helping drive some communities’ prosperity, while entirely passing others by. Emissionality stands to help even this playing field, contributing to new jobs in places where they’re needed most, as opposed to continuing to oversaturate other markets.
This can be especially valuable in coal country, where coal-mining jobs have declined dramatically over the last decade. Around 53,000 people are coal miners in the United States today, down from 86,000 at the beginning of 2009 and more than 250,000 at the beginning of the 1980s. And according to the https://www.usenergyjobs.org/ (USEER), a joint report by the National Association of State Energy Officials and the Energy Futures Initiative, coal-fired generation employment declined by 7.2%, casting off more than 6,600 jobs last year alone.
The specter of coal’s decline lurks in and around states where its mining has historically been an economic driver. Researchers at the University of Tennessee and University of West Virginia project that the long-term decline of mining across Appalachia will have a ripple effect on related businesses, health, education and overall population in the region. In addition to sheer unemployment rates, a side effect of coal’s demise is that it’s already become common for many in the region to commute to jobs in another county, a trend that can take further, harder-to-predict tolls on the fabric of a community.
Contrast all this with the clean energy sector, where jobs have been on the rise, generally, over the past few years. Two years ago, employment in the U.S. solar industry surpassed employment in the coal, oil and natural gas sectors combined. While solar job growth has tapered slightly since, it still remains a powerful economic driver in communities with a strong solar presence. Meanwhile, the USEER report also found that advanced/low emissions natural gas, wind and CHP generation were the fastest-growing employers last year, with employment growing by more than 4,500 (7%), 3,700 (3.5%), and 2,000 (7.4%), respectively.
This growth will spread to coal country when more corporations and institutions see — through the lens of emissionality — the quantifiable value of building new renewables where they will displace the dirtiest coal. Investment momentum in these overlooked parts of the country will then bring both temporary construction jobs as well as long-term maintenance and operations jobs.
Emissionality-based renewable energy investment will start to rebalance the scales, empowering people who are at risk of losing coal-related work access to more quality jobs, locally. And it will do so while supporting corporate climate goals, without sacrificing financial benefits.
Although the wind and solar industries rightly and proudly proclaim their growing contributions to America’s workforce, developing jobs isn’t typically the driving force behind renewable investment by corporate offtakers. But it can be a powerful social benefit in an organization’s larger CSR strategy. And together with far more robust emissions reductions impact, that’s a compelling use case for any potential clean energy investor.