Green jobs? Heck yes, workers say

Those on the unemployment line aren't the only ones hoping for a break.

Many who are out of work or have had to take anything the job market has had to offer these past two years are hunting and/or daydreaming about a better position and future. And all this tepid economic news about a slow recovery -- coupled with almost daily reports of growing fallout by shadow foreclosure inventory and about 25 percent of U.S. homeowners under water on their mortgages -- doesn't help.

The recession-plagued economy has elevated interest in so-called green jobs, especially when a number of reports tout the up-and-coming sector's influence. Yet when these forecast jobs materialize and what they will look like remain as hazy as the view from Fresno to the Sierra Mountains. (For those who haven't gotten the opportunity to see what I'm referring to, let's just say it's very hazy and sometimes muddy.)

San Francisco-based research and advisory firm Clean Edge Inc. offers some clarity and digestible information with its report "Clean Tech Job Trends 2010." Company co-founder Ron Pernick, senior editor Clint Wilder and research associate Trevor Winnie summarize and gather data from other reports and bring their own findings to plot out a fairly optimistic view of the future of clean tech in the realms of wind, solar, water, materials and transportation.

"There are many challenges facing the sector, but clean energy and more broadly, clean tech, offer some of the largest growth opportunities on the global economic horizon," they write.

Clean Edge carves the market into four parts: energy, transportation, water and materials. Energy includes everything from wind, biomass and the smart grid. Transporation includes battery technology, trains, hybrids and hydrogen. Water includes recovery and capture, drip irrigation and energy efficient desalination. Materials includes bio-based materials, green chemistry and building materials and reuse and recycling.

The list is diverse and the job requirements even more so. But promise radiates from every sector.

Clean Edge says its research shows that "the solar photovoltaic industry alone now represents approximately 300,000 direct and indirect jobs globally, while the wind-power sector includes more than 500,000 direct and indirect jobs worldwide."

Not bad. It also cites reports that say Ireland, Denmark and Great Britain are on track to receive about 40 percent their electricity from renewable sources by 2025, following the lead of Portugal which reportedly is to reach 45 percent this year.

Of course, all this comes with a downside. Renewables -- at least on their face and not including all the damage done by greenhouse gas emissions -- cost more than fossil fuels. Without government assistance, they can fall flat. For instance, Spain -- a leader in solar -- is reportedly pulling subsidies, or feed-in tariffs, for renewables, threatening the future of many new projects and others countries are doing the same to a lesser degree.

And in the blogosphere, the issue has generated controversy. A comment on a story about incandescent bulb plants disappearing got this from a responder calling him or herself John Galt: "A set of technologies and products created at great cost to solve a problem that had already been solved (generating electricity), at costs considerably higher than the costs of the technologies they seek to supplant? My 12 year old daughter knows that’s a losing business proposition."

Environmental strategist and author Andrew Wilson says the debate over green jobs is far more nuanced than simply focusing on solar panel installers. He writes in that the international job market is facing a choice of decline or prosperity, with fossil fuels comprising the former.

"Oil is basically at peak production globally, and coal plants are nearly impossible to build in the U.S. anymore," Wilson writes. "Even as the world demands more energy, and even as fossil fuel production continues, these companies will continue to get more efficient with labor. So don't count on the fossil guys to create new wealth and jobs."

Wilson and Clean Tech point to a future of green-related jobs over a wide array of industries, linked only by concept. The mainstays, solar and wind, will provide positions but the multiplier effect comes from the spin-offs, the related support and supply jobs.

"There are more subtle shifts in labor going on as companies that did one thing in the old economy are finding their skills useful in the new one," Winston writes. He cites the case of an oil-patch cable company laying undersea electrical transmission lines for offshore wind turbines.

Pernick and Wilder at Clean Edge acknowledge clean tech needs assistance from government. They called for five national policies and initiatives they believe could play a critical role in ensuring clean-tech growth and job creation.

The first is requiring that a certain percentage of power generation come from renewables. The others were supporting green infrastructure development, enforcing emissions rules, establishing green banks, bonds and funds and implementing carbon taxes.

So what's it mean? Clean Tech's report listed the top metro areas with clean tech job activity. At Nos. 1 and 2 were San Francisco and Los Angeles. Boston came in at No. 3, with New York, Denver and Washington, D.C. filling out the top six. And the salaries aren't bad.

"A new green economy is just that -- a whole new economy, with job openings at all skill levels, from truck drivers to inventors of new battery chemistry," Winston says.

And someday soon something might just pop up on for you.