One of the more contentious challenges in the ongoing effort to move to a cleaner mix of fuels to run our modern world has been addressing concerns about the jobs that are lost, and the people who are affected, as we transition from the current mix of energy sources to a more advanced mix.
And truly, that is a serious problem. We can look at the world and say that we made such transitions before--from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles; from burning wood to burning coal and then oil; etc. Those transitions, too, changed the mix and location of jobs. But most of those transitions occurred over longer periods of time than we are now envisioning, allowing people more time to adjust.
Therefore, I was very pleased to hear former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm's responses to questions in her Senate hearing for the position of Secretary of the Department of Energy about the job implications of efforts to move to cleaner energy sources:
“We can buy electric car batteries from Asia, or we can make them in America,” Granholm told senators. “We can install wind turbines from Denmark, or we can make them in America.″
One can argue that these are easy statements to make and harder measures to implement. And they may certainly mean that some people will have to move. But, it is also true that many of the jobs in the nuclear and renewable energy industries are good, high-paying jobs, and if measures like training and other support can be offered to those affected by closures of old facilities, then we potentially have a win-win. In addition, if jobs are made an important part of the plan to transition to cleaner energy, then efforts can be made to locate some of the manufacturing centers for the new products needed in the very places where mining and other jobs are being lost.
There are still many challenges ahead. It is easy to say that we will build the factories here, but it is harder to compete against the cheap labor in some parts of the world. It is easy to say that factories will be built in mining communities, but those decisions are not directly in the hands of the government. And this is not a short-term issue; we will need sustained attention to the impacts on jobs.
However, if the recognition of need for job creation is made an integral element of the planning process, then a balanced approach to the energy transition can developed, one that considers the people as well as the environment. It will not be easy, and there will not be perfect solutions, but Secretary Granholm's statements at the Senate hearing are a very encouraging sign that we will plan in a holistic way that addresses both the needs of the overall population and the needs of the individuals most affected by the changes.