By Elliott Negin
Now that the hubbub has died down from Gov. Bob McDonnell’s energy conference in October, let’s take a clear-eyed look at a claim made by the conference’s keynote speaker, Christine Todd Whitman, about job potential in the energy sector. In an October 13 online column in Virginia Business. Whitman declared that nuclear power is “a domestic jobs machine” that “can help alleviate the country’s current economic situation.”
That doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
If Whitman were really serious about promoting jobs in the energy sector, she would be talking about energy efficiency and renewable energy. They not only create more jobs than nuclear, they are cheaper, safer, and can be deployed much more quickly.
Whitman, co-chair of a nuclear industry-funded group called the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, promises “thousands” of new jobs if “more than a dozen new nuclear energy facilities … are built.” Besides the fact that “thousands” are a pittance in the grand scheme of things, how likely is it that the industry will build a dozen new reactors anytime soon? Not very. Given the skyrocketing cost estimates to build a new reactor, Wall Street’s reluctance to finance one, and the unavailability of key manufacturing components, it is much more likely that no more than four or five new reactors will be built in the U.S. over the next decade.
According to Whitman, building one new reactor would produce as many as 2,400 temporary construction jobs, and, once built, would employ 400 to 700 full-time workers. For argument’s sake, let’s entertain Whitman’s rosiest projection and say the four or five new reactors built over the next decade actually create as many as 3,500 permanent jobs. How does that stack up against the potential of renewable energy sources?
If the federal government established a standard requiring utilities to obtain 25 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025, it would create 297,000 new jobs, according to a 2009 analysis, “Clean Power, Green Jobs,” by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Echoing UCS’s analysis, a 2010 study by Navigant Consulting found that a 25 percent standard by 2025 would create 274,000 jobs, and 5,000 to 7,500 of those new jobs would be in Virginia. Currently 29 states and the District of Columbia have renewable energy standards that range from 10 percent to 33 percent by a target date. Virginia has a standard of 15 percent by 2025, but it’s voluntary.
Energy efficiency programs also would produce more jobs than building new nuclear reactors. A 2009 study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy found that a national standard requiring utilities to institute programs reducing electricity demand by 15 percent and natural gas demand by 10 percent would generate more than 220,000 jobs by 2020.
The renewables-efficiency sector is still relatively small, but it’s growing. From 1998 through 2007, jobs at renewable energy and energy efficiency businesses nationally jumped 9.1 percent — more than twice the national average of 3.7 percent—while jobs in the nuclear industry declined 7.9 percent, according to a 2009 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts. In 2007, 68,203 renewables and efficiency businesses employed 770,385 workers across the country, the Pew report found. That same year, the nuclear industry employed 80,242 people.
Renewables and energy efficiency have made their mark in Virginia, too. From 1998 through 2007, Virginia saw a 6.6 percent growth in jobs in the renewables-efficiency sector, according to the Pew report. By 2007, it employed 70,828 people in the state. Meanwhile, the two nuclear power plants in Virginia —North Anna and Surry — each now have about 900 employees and contractors on site, for a total of 1,800.
Virginia’s potential for more renewables and efficiency jobs is considerable given its largely untapped resources. According to government and independent data compiled by UCS, the commonwealth has the potential to supply half of its 2008 electricity demand with a combination of solar (27 percent), biomass (15 percent), onshore wind (4 percent), hydro (3 percent) and landfill gas (1 percent). Granted, the economic potential for these renewable sources may be much lower, but when coupled with aggressive energy-efficiency programs, they could significantly cut demand for both nuclear power and coal.
Elliott Negin is the director of news and commentary at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an independent, nonpartisan science advocacy organization, in Washington, D.C. The organization, founded in 1969, has more than 350,000 members and supporters.