Many communities are choosing to pursue climate goals, focusing on renewable energy and energy efficiency to reduce carbon emissions and combat the growing threat of climate change.
In June, Ithaca’s Common Council passed a Green New Deal resolution, which set ambitious environmental goals for the city, including achieving carbon neutrality citywide by 2030. Tompkins County has already committed to reducing its emissions by 80% by 2050 and 20% by 2020, from 2008 levels.
Questions about how these large-scale changes will occur at such a fast pace often dominate conversations on how to reduce our carbon emissions. What is less discussed are the benefits of these changes, including reduced energy costs and air pollution, improved health and comfort, and more local, well-paying jobs.
Get Your GreenBack estimates that it takes 10-12 energy upgrades or solar installs to support a full-time employee with a living wage.
Helping all 42,000 households in Tompkins County reduce their energy use and go solar in the next few decades would create hundreds of new jobs for workers entering this clean energy field. And that's not even counting the needs of the commercial and industrial sectors!
Jobs on a local level
Hal Smith, founder of Halco Energy, started his company in 1984 as a plumbing, heating, and air conditioning company. Working within the Finger Lakes region, Halco Energy provides a range of residential and commercial services, including energy audits, high-efficiency heating and cooling systems, insulation, air-sealing, and renewable energy systems.
“We're very involved in clean energies, you know, air source heat pumps, ground source heat pumps, heat pump water heaters,” he said. “We do all of that work.”
Hal said the relationship between community support for renewable energy and job creation is clear.
“There is no question that every time you sell our renewable energy systems, you're putting more people to work,” he said.
Jon Harrod, one of the founders of Snug Planet, began his company in 2006. Originally, he focused on energy auditing and the building envelope, but eventually expanded to pursue improving the mechanical systems of buildings — heating, hot water, and cooling.
“Our mission has always been to reduce energy use and carbon emissions, and to improve comfort in ways that make sense for our customers and for the planet,” Jon said.
He said he has seen significant growth in his company since its conception in 2006.
“We started out as myself and one employee working out of a spare room in my house back in 2006,” Jon said. “And we’ve grown to 15 employees. And our production has increased several fold as well. So, we are creating good jobs here in the community, and if we figure out the policies that are going to allow us to do ten times as many houses as we’re doing, we’ll figure out the staffing side of it as well, and add even more jobs.”
Another local contractor — Renovus Solar — has significantly expanded since it began as a multi-purpose renewable energy company in 2003. Now, the company focuses solely on solar energy.
“We kind of serve as … this starting point for people electrifying their homes and getting off of natural gas in a meaningful way,” Ryan McCune, vice president of sales and marketing, said. “And solar can be kind of a catalyst that leads to a lot of other efficiency investments.”
Ryan said there is a clear connection between community members choosing to have these systems installed and his company’s ability to support its employees. He also said that he has noticed that one family’s decision to go solar will often spark a whole series of home energy upgrades, creating job opportunities and increasing the likelihood that other people will follow suit.
“The customer will see this kind of initial catalyst of solar savings as a reason for why they’ve made this cascading, waterfall of decisions around other ways that they can save money and offset their carbon footprint,” Ryan said. “But the reality is that every decision that they’re making for their benefit also benefits the jobs and the community of the people around them. And also inject money into the community that gives more people the option to make the same choices that the customer is making. And it can be a really powerful cycle.”
Not only does renewable energy cause a ripple effect in the labor market, but it is also a safer and healthier energy option for communities.
“When people talk about the fossil fuel industry, they love talking about peripheral job creation,” he said. “The solar industry is no different … And the biggest difference is, we’re not going to come in and poison your community.”
A growing clean energy industry
Nationwide, the renewable energy industry is booming.
E2’s most recent Clean Jobs America report found that nearly 3.3 million Americans are working in clean energy, outnumbering fossil fuel jobs 3-to-1. According to a 2017 report released by the Environmental Defense Fund, the renewable energy industry — and in particular solar and wind energy — is creating jobs 12 times faster than the rest of the economy.
Seventy percent of energy efficiency employees work for companies with 10 employees or less. Smaller scale, local contractors are growing and providing crucial services to members of their communities.
What hasn’t quite caught up is the workforce.
“We're backed up three months,” Hal said. “I could, if I had more qualified people, I could be taking on a lot more work. The whole reason that we can't take on more work is because there's not enough people. It’s not that we can’t make sales. And it's nationwide. It's not unique to our region. It’s national.”
Hal said it can also be challenging to find enough qualified and motivated employees to fill the growing demand for home energy efficiency work. Jobs in the clean energy industry are often in construction and installation, and this can involve hard labor and require a willingness to get one’s hands dirty.
“It’s hard and you're working outside and many times, or you're working in very hot attics, or, you know, nasty crawl spaces,” he said. “This business is hard work. It's very rewarding, and you're helping a lot of people, but it's not easy. It’s hard to find people that want to stick with the skilled trades and work with their hands.”
To address this shortage, Hal spent many years as the Chairperson for the Finger Lakes Workforce Investment Board and founded an event called Finger Lakes Works With Their Hands. Each year, around 800 high school students gather in Seneca Falls to learn about jobs that take them out of the office.
“We’ve gained a lot of workers from that over the years,” Hal said. “A high school student comes for the day and they get to weld and solder and operate a backhoe and a bulldozer and all kinds of cool things, hands on type activities.”
Jon echoed Hal’s experiences and said the labor market is currently limited, especially in people who have the technical skills and work experience in what is still an emerging industry.
“I think we could actually probably do even more work,” he said. “Right now, the labor market is pretty tight. Especially people with experience and skills on the HVAC side — they’re hard to find. And we would love to find some more experienced installers. We can definitely work with people that are new to the field, but as far as crew chief and lead installer type positions, we would love to find some more.”
To fill these gaps in the labor market, Jon said he is turning to a younger generation of students who are passionate about social justice. Although these kinds of jobs involve more difficult physical labor, they save money and energy and are intertwined with issues of equity.
“There are so many younger, recent, high school and college grads that are really passionate about climate change, and about social justice,” Jon said. “And we would like to find a way to connect with them and say, ‘Okay, here's, here's a path, it's probably not what you thought you were going to do when you went to Cornell, or Ithaca College, but it’s a meaningful path that can allow you to make really direct and tangible contributions to the things you care about.’”
Saving money, energy, and the planet
Not only do renewable energy and energy-efficient systems save energy, but they also save money.
Marianne Pelletier and her wife, Laura Staubes, from Enfield, found that the money they saved in energy bills after insulating their home and purchasing a wood stove more than covered their loan payments for getting the work done.
Stories like this are common. Community members experience greater home comfort, reduced energy bills, and the knowledge that they are doing their part in reducing their carbon footprint. In Tompkins County, in 2008, 21.2% of our greenhouse gases were emitted by the residential sector.
Jon said home energy efficiency work ties back to our planet. He stressed that with the growing threat of climate change, it is becoming increasingly important to reduce our carbon emissions.
“We have a finite amount of time, you know, on the order of a decade, or maybe two at the outside to really make some deep cuts in our carbon emissions,” Jon said.
Ryan sees home and building electrification as a crucial — and unifying — means to battle climate change. This, he said, is a step that we can all take.
“I think about electrification as the single most important but not talked about opportunity of our lives to fight climate change,” he said. “And it all starts with people voting with their money and saying, ‘Hey, this is important to me.’”
Article by Communications Intern Maggie McAden.
Find out more about steps toward a net-zero home here. Contact Karim Beers, Get Your GreenBack Tompkins coordinator, at email@example.com or (607) 272-2292 x 186 with any questions.