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Rust Belt to Green Belt: Will America Rebuild Its Manufacturing Base on The Wings of the Green Economy?

The Green Economy is poised to bring many thousands of good jobs to America, but will the government let it?

Submitted by: Francesca Rheannon

Posted: Aug 09, 2012 – 08:42 AM EST

Tags: jobs, green jobs, manufacturing, energy efficiency, politics, public policy, economy, sustainability


By Francesca Rheannon

There’s been a lot of talk on the hustings lately about outsourcing.

Both President Obama and Mitt Romney have accused each other of sending good American jobs to other countries, but the “giant sucking sound” of American manufacturing jobs draining to low-wage countries abroad has been going on for far longer than either man has been in politics. In 1979, manufacturing jobs constituted 18 percent of the workforce. By 2011, that percentage had been slashed in half. (Tip of the hat to Donald Bartlett and James Steele for that fact, found in their terrific new book, The Betrayal of the American Dream.) 

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

But a turnaround is possible -- if political forces don’t get in the way. And the “onshoring” of jobs could take place on the wings of the Green Economy -- again, if those wings aren’t clipped by hostile politicians. Already by 2010, the American solar industry employed almost 10,000 more workers than the U.S. steel sector, with 93,500 jobs. The trend is being driven by the stick of climate change and the carrot of profits.

While giving the keynote speech August 7th at the fifth annual Clean Energy Summit in Nevada, Senator Harry Reid referred to the stick; he lambasted those who would stand in the way of the domestic clean energy industry, saying “… deniers still exist, fueled and funded by dirty energy profits. These people aren’t just on the other side of this debate. They’re on the other side of reality.”

While the big stick is the climate reality most of us are waking up to, the big carrot is jobs -- and the revenues, both in profits and in taxes, that creating a greener economy brings, as can be seen in this infographic from the Clean Energy Summit.

And it’s not just happening in renewable energy. The drive for greater energy efficiency and the need to escape rising fuel costs are also bringing jobs home, as well as creating new ones.

The Growth of Clean Energy in Nevada


While climate hawks like myself would prefer to see mass transit provide the mainstay of transportation needs, it’s unlikely that rail or hybrid buses will supplant the private automobile any time in the near future.

Electric car batteries are getting better, but so is the gasoline engine. President Obama announced aggressive new fuel efficiency standards in 2011 (54.5 mpg by Model Year 2025.) The requirements are already pushing the American auto industry to bring workers back to the assembly line. The government estimates that 190,000 jobs could be created by 2020 in building more efficient cars, while saving consumers more than $8,000 per vehicle (by 2025) and cutting vehicle emissions by 48 percent (by 2030.)

The National Resources Defense Council boosts the estimate of jobs created much higher by including parts manufacturing along with vehicle production. The NRDC estimates nearly half a million new jobs by 2030 as a result of the new fuel efficiency standards.

The trend is already apparent: Honda and Toyota are both bringing production jobs to the U.S., including Honda’s Civic Hybrid and Toyota’s Highlander SUV. Ford has established a Center for Excellence for Vehicle Electrification in Michigan to design and build battery packs and electric drive transaxles in that (formerly?) rust-belt state. 

Onshoring the Supply Chain 

Localizing the supply chain applies to more than cars.

While all local manufacturing isn’t concentrated in green products, making products locally is inherently greener. From niche factories in Brooklyn, New York to business-to-business networks that hook up suppliers with buyers, the push to revitalize domestic manufacturing is gearing up.

For example, the Making It Here Initiative in Ohio has several projects to support local manufacturers. One is focused on wind power: GLWN. The project helps wind energy companies in the state connect with domestic and international investors who are developing wind operations across the country. Another project, Magnet, has helped to create or maintain over 6,000 manufacturing jobs in Ohio -- no small feat in this epicenter of the Rust Belt.

Some experts forecast more onshoring in the future, as wages rise in China and fuel costs increase. 

Wind Power

Wind power jobs are boosting employment in other parts of the Rust Belt, like Iowa, as recently reported in this blog by Philip Warburg. But the southeastern U.S. is also getting in on the deal. Companies in that region are expanding production of fiberglass for turbine blades (PPG Industries in North Carolina), building wind towers (World Tower Company in Kentucky), and manufacturing gear boxes (ZF in Georgia), among other components.

But here’s where the political caveat comes in.

Mitt Romney has already proclaimed his determination to do away with the wind energy credit, a stance that earned him the ire of Iowa’s Governor Terry Branstad -- a Republican. Branstad said, “We have a lot of jobs associated with [the wind credit], so we think he needs to be educated as to how important this is.”

Harry Reid said at the Clean Energy Summit that he expects the wind energy credit to pass the Senate, but its fate in the House is uncertain.

Weatherization Stymied By Cuts

Another area of promise denied has been weatherization. Creating thousands of good green jobs weatherizing low income homes across America should be a no-brainer. Not only would employment bring a surge to consumer spending by both workers and homeowners, it would also put tax revenues into depleted state budgets.

In 2009, the Obama Administration directed stimulus money to be used in weatherization programs. But in 2012, the Weatherization Assistance Program was cut, slashing funds to 25 states. In Colorado, for example, a program that hired jobless veterans for the program saw a 75 percent drop in funding. Green JobsThe WAP created or kept alive around 13,000 jobs in the fourth quarter of 2011, second only to jobs in the highway sector. But many of those jobs are likely to disappear.

Domestic Dreams Deferred

Other hopes for domestic jobs are withering as fast as Midwestern corn is wilting on the stalk. On July 19th, the U.S. Senate gave the kabosh to the Bring Jobs Home Act. And crazily, a majority of Senators actually voted for the bill, but it fell short of the 60 votes needed to go forward to the Senate floor.

The bill, strongly supported by Democrats and the White House, would have taken away tax deductions to companies that offshored jobs while giving a 20 percent tax deduction to companies that brought jobs home. Senate Republicans said they couldn’t support the bill because, among other crimes, it didn’t do away with Obamacare at the same time that it was doing something about jobs.

Both parties say they want to bring good jobs home to America. The Green Economy is champing at the bit to take off, and, given half a chance, it will bring millions of good jobs to the country. But it needs a level playing field -- and more.

As a new series on CSRwire by James Hoopes will show, new industries have always depended on government to nurture them. The railroads, the fossil fuel industry, the digital revolution -- all these were aided by government policy and programs.

If we are to fully turn the Rust Belt (and beyond) into the Green Belt, we need government to step up to the plate.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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