Friday, April 11, 2008

Harnessing the Sun: Future of Green Jobs

t r u t h o u t | 04.11

Harnessing the Sun: Future of Green Jobs
By Suemedha Sood
The Washington Independent

Friday 11 April 2008

Two massive solar projects promise cleaner energy and new jobs.

The race for high-capacity solar power is on.

Southern California Edison Co. announced plans last month to build the country's largest solar installation. The project is expected to power 162,000 houses in the greater Los Angeles area - about 5 percent of the area's homes - with 250 megawatts of power by the year 2010. This announcement came soon after the Spanish firm Abengoa Solar launched its massive solar project - Solana Generating Station - which it is calling the biggest in the world. This will be 70 miles southwest of Phoenix and is expected to generate 280 megawatts by 2011.

Both these plants are designed to use "concentrating solar power," or CSP, technology to harness the sun's heat and convert it to electricity. CSP is more efficient than other renewable energy alternatives. This solar technology does what so many have talked about: it creates jobs.

There have been a lot of promises on the presidential campaign trail about "green-collar" jobs. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) have all said that the green energy sector could create millions of new jobs in the next decade. This rhetoric links together three big goals - to reduce dependence on foreign oil, to curb global warming and to stimulate the economy.

But the question has been, what will green jobs look like? And how long will it take to create them? Many in the solar industry are saying green-collar jobs are here, and with concentrating solar power, the sun will soon be able to compete with its fossil fuel rivals.

Large-scale concentrating solar power plants are just now being built in the United States . Projects like the Southern California Edison plant and Solana are, in part, the result of state mandates requiring power companies to generate part of their electricity from renewable energy. In some cases, CSP can produce more jobs than traditional energy plants. And it is a wide range of jobs - from unskilled labor to engineering jobs requiring advanced degrees. Though costs are going down and jobs are opening up, solar energy has yet to become a viable competitor in the energy market. But some experts say that's about to change.

Dr. Fred Morse is one such expert. Morse, who was executive director of the White House Assessment of Solar Energy as a National Energy Resource in the late 1960s and then a solar energy official in the Dept. of Energy during the Carter and Regan administrations, currently chairs the Concentrating Solar Power division of the Solar Energy Industries Assn. - the industry's trade association. He is also now a consultant for Abengoa, the Spanish firm building the Arizona plant. "I don't think that CSP is competitive today," said Morse. "It will take about five or six years."

Generating more power is the key to competitiveness. An additional 4,000 megawatts needs to be generated before solar can compete on a level playing field, according to a report by the Western Governors' Assn.'s solar task force (pdf here). That amount of power could electrify all the homes in a city the size of Chicago . It's a big number, considering that the largest existing concentrating solar power project in the U.S., Nevada Solar One, only has a 64-megawatt capacity, enough for about 15,000 homes. Generating 4,000 megawatts of new solar energy would drive prices down significantly.

The goal of producing 4,000 megawatts of concentrated solar power is within sight, though, because 3,500 megawatts are already under contract to be built, says Morse. If all proposed projects get built, CSP can become competitive with fossil fuel energy sources by 2013.

As more solar power is generated, more jobs are expected to be created. For a 280-megawatt plant like Solana, between 1,500 and 2,000 temporary construction jobs will be needed during building and about 85 permanent jobs in operations. While solar plants require more construction jobs than traditional energy plants, they require fewer permanent jobs.

For example, a 280-megawatt coal-fired plant, says Jim Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, would create up to 1,000 construction jobs and up to 140 full-time jobs. Coal plants with scrubbers require even more full-time operators, raising the number of full-time jobs to between 140 and 160.

"At any coal plant," said Roewer, "you have more people than you would at a solar plant simply because there are more moving parts - and you need to have individuals that are involved with fuel management, people managing coal ash, water treatment folks, waste water treatment folks and ongoing maintenance activities."

But concentrating solar power also creates new higher-level jobs.

Mark Mehos, a senior engineer and CSP expert at the federal government's National Renewable Energy Laboratory says there are big opportunities in research and development jobs. That's because CSP developers are competing to create the most efficient technologies. Government-funded research and development programs in industry, universities and in government laboratories are generating jobs in each of those sectors. In a burgeoning solar industry, advances in technology mean payoffs for efficiency. That's why Abengoa boasts a secret variation in technology that the firm will use to build Solana.

On the CSP deployment side, says Mehos, jobs are needed at every stage. That means solar energy calls for researchers, engineers, electricians, managers and control room operators in addition to construction workers.

Southern California Edison is in the process of sorting out the number of jobs its new plant will attract. The beauty of concentrating solar power, says spokesman Gil Alexander, is that its scale is that of a standard power plant, so it'll attract a large number of jobs. "You can picture this as building a utility power plant, only this one will be all solar panels," he said, "By placing such a large order - the largest in the world - it will attract [many] jobs to Southern California." This means construction jobs, full-time operation jobs, management jobs and even manufacturing jobs.

Most people don't take into account CSP's need for manufacturing jobs, says NREL's Mehos. "We never generally get into manufacturing job numbers for CSP, and those are usually in the numbers thrown around for PV [or solar panels]," he said. "But if you start talking about manufacturing jobs - for mirrors, turbines - they ought to be similar to [the numbers for PV]."

In fact, an economic impact report shows that a 250-megawatt plant could create more than 3,000 manufacturing jobs.

It's clear that the potential is there for solar job creation. But how quickly will we see job growth in CSP? The answer comes down to how quickly costs will go down for building solar plants. Those costs are currently pretty high - Southern California Edison expects to spend $875 million on its CSP project.

It's hard to determine how long it will take for costs to come down, says Morse of Abengoa, because current costs are hard to gauge. "The reason is," he said, "it's extremely sensitive to where you locate the plant, how much sun there is, what you pay for interest, who owns the plants, what's the return on investment, how much thermal storage there is, and on and on."

The many variables make it difficult to nail down solar power's economic future. It becomes clear, then, why solar rhetoric puts so much emphasis on the potential this technology has to compete with fossil fuels.

But that potential could be realized soon, says solar veteran Morse. "It could happen very, very quickly," he said. "There's nothing in the way of it happening. It's just whether the market wants it to happen."

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