Tilting at Windmills

Why the green jobs promise is still unfulfilled

american-prospect_logoCleveland has been trying to develop offshore wind turbines on Lake Erie since 2004. After many false starts, construction on a pilot program will start in 2018, helped along by Project Icebreaker, which will allow year-round production in the partly frozen lake. Should this six-turbine wind farm on Lake Erie be successful, a new wind-powered energy grid could be developed along the southern shores of all the Great Lakes.The government’s National Renewable Energy Lab estimates that more than 100,000 megawatts of wind energy could be generated on the Great Lakes. That, in turn, offers the potential for thousands of good jobs in the manufacturing supply chain for turbines, their components, and maintenance. The American Wind Energy Association estimates that wind power has already stimulated 3,000 jobs and $900 million in wind investment in Ohio.

But a closer look suggests how offshore wind epitomizes the unrealized promise of economic redevelopment policies for America’s heartland based on renewable energy. For starters, China has a serious industrial and targeted trade policy for capturing global markets and supply chains in wind (and solar), and the United States doesn’t. China subsidizes production of turbines, plays hardball with parts suppliers, and does whatever it takes to capture market share. European government policy is more consistent than ours in creating a market both for wind energy and for wind-turbine producers.

By contrast, the United States government shuns national industrial policies, uses renewable energy subsidies intermittently, does not coordinate national energy policy with local and regional economic development efforts, and is reluctant to press China hard even when the Chinese violate basic trade norms. As a consequence, regional development policies such as the Lake Erie wind turbine effort are left to local and state governments and their industry partners, who often get steamrolled by the Chinese. Thus, the fantasy of combining a green energy transition with creation of new domestic industries and jobs has not been fully realized. Wages in former industrial powerhouse states like Ohio continue to languish, leaving their workforce as Trump-bait. This is a pity, economically as well as politically, because the potential is immense.

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