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The Presidential Debates Were a Lost Opportunity to Discuss Energy Policy

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Editor’s Note: The presidential election is over, with a rather stunning result. And while we will soon begin to explore the implications of this result, it is worth examining how we got here. This piece, by Ripudaman Malhotra from the day before the election, examines the missed opportunity of the campaigns’ ignoring of energy issues, especially in the three presidential debates.

The number times the subject of energy was brought up by a moderator in this year’s three Presidential debates is precisely zero. The only time the issue came up was during the town-hall style debate in St. Louis when citizen Ken Bone asked the candidates, “What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job layoffs?” In his brief response, Trump berated the Obama administration and the EPA for “killing” our energy industry and letting foreign companies come in. He was forgetting that more than the EPA it is the abundance of cheap gas that is killing coal production. If oil and gas is production is increased, so will the economic pressure to close coal mines. And, yes we do need regulations; thanks to the Clean Air Act emission of toxic particulates from coal power plants have been markedly reduced, and as a result we are all breathing easier.

In her statement, which was cut short by the moderator, Clinton only emphasized the need to revitalize the coal country as coal prices are down globally and the government can’t walk away from miners and other workers of the region. We missed a great opportunity to hear our candidates lay out their policies on this very important topic.

Hillary Clinton wants to invest heavily in transforming the US energy supply and touts the large number of green jobs that will create.  While consideration of jobs is understandable, I think the emphasis on the number of jobs in energy industries is misplaced. The role of the energy industry is not to employ many workers within itself, but to produce a commodity at an affordable price to enable other industries and businesses to flourish and in so doing provide employment for many. We don’t necessarily want many people employed in the production of energy—a commodity; rather we want more people employed in the consumption of energy. Wages for every employee engaged in production add to the cost of producing the commodity, making it more expensive for other businesses and industries to use it and employ more workers.

It is true that green energy employs many more people, but to get more quantitative—which is my wont—I browsed through the databases published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to cull some relevant data. For the amount of energy produced by each sector, I used the data from the 2016 BP Review of Global Energy. Whereas the BLS continues to track the numbers for the Oil and Gas, Coal, Nuclear, Hydro, and many other industries, it stopped tracking Green Energy jobs in 2013—a casualty of the sequestration that went into effect when the Congress could not agree on a balanced budget. Besides, its definition of “green jobs” was very broad. Fortunately, the International Renewable Energy Agency does track the global employment in wind, solar, and other renewable technologies.

The following table lists the number of workers employed in the different energy sector and the amount of energy produced by them. For the first four entries the numbers refer to the US only, but for Wind and Solar they refer to global employment and global energy production. The relevant point for comparison is the per capita productivity. Whereas each worker in the Nuclear power produces over 100 GWh/year, the productivity of workers in the wind power sector generate less than 1 GWh/yr, and in the solar less than a tenth of that. At this rate, the solar power sector would need to employ about 43 million workers, or roughly a third of the US workforce, to generate the 4,000 TWh of electricity that the US currently produces and consumes!

Per capita energy productivity is the highest for nuclear power.

By Sector

Nuclear (US)
No. of Workers – 7,000
Energy Produced (TWh) – 760
Productivity (GWh/cap) – 109

Coal (US)
No. of Workers – 70,000
Energy Produced (TWh) – 1,600
Productivity (GWh/cap) – 23

Oil & Gas (US)
No. of Workers – 170,000
Energy Produced (TWh) – 6,260
Productivity (GWh/cap) – 37

Hydro (US)
No. of Workers – 6,000
Energy Produced (TWh) – 230
Productivity (GWh/cap) – 38

Wind (Global)
No. of Workers – 1,081,000
Energy Produced (TWh) – 841
Productivity (GWh/cap) – 0.78

Solar (Global)
No. of Workers – 2,772,000
Energy Produced (TWh) – 253
Productivity (GWh/cap) – 0.09

Illustration Credit: DonkeyHotey via Flickr

Ripudaman Malhotra's picture

Thank Ripudaman for the Post!

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Thorkil Soee's picture
Thorkil Soee on November 9, 2016

Long time ago after the French revolution, there was an urgent demand for employment.
According to usually unreliable historical textbooks, people dug trenches one day and filled them the next.
Looking at the figures above we are still trying to create both jobs and pollution instead of efficiency.
On the other hand: It is the green future.

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