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Tina Casey headshot

Can the Keystone XL Pipeline Beat Wind and Solar's Job Creation?

By Tina Casey

In last weekend's weekly GOP radio address, Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) continued to pitch the proposed Keystone XL pipeline as a job-creating engine, chiding President Obama for dismissing the project as "not a jobs plan."

However, Scott's speech follows on the heels of three major reports that demonstrate how rapidly wind power and solar power are becoming significant players in the U.S. energy landscape. When you consider how that translates into job creation and economic activity, it becomes all the more difficult to make a rational case for the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure that could end up putting more jobs at risk than it creates.

Wind Power and the SunShot Initiative

The aforementioned reports include two on the wind power industry from the Department of Energy (previously covered on Triple Pundit here). They highlight the fact that wind accounted for the single largest source of new generating capacity in the U.S. last year, even beating out the surging natural gas sector. DOE also notes that in addition to jobs related to the construction of wind farms and individual turbines, the wind industry is also revving up the manufacturing sector. It used more than 70 percent domestic components last year, compared to only 25 percent in 2006.

The third report came out last week from the University of California - Berkeley. It highlights President Obama's SunShot Initiative, which is modeled on the renowned 1960s "Moonshot" program that propelled the U.S. into leadership in space exploration. Under SunShot, the goal is to bring the price of solar power down to parity with conventional sources by 2020.

SunShot pivots around a series of public-private partnerships, pumping about $300 million per year into new solar technologies while creating new jobs. Although Republican critics have focused attention on the bankruptcy of one partner company, Solyndra, the fact is that SunShot has been an overwhelming success.

The UC-Berkeley study involved developing a computer model of the electric power grid in the western U.S., Canada and Mexico, in order to predict what would happen to electricity prices and carbon emissions if SunShot achieves its goal, as seems likely to be the case. The area of study covers the U.S west of the Kansas/Colorado border, Alberta, British Columbia, and northwest Mexico.

The research team determined that if successful, SunShot could provide more than one-third of all energy needs in the study area while displacing other alternatives, namely natural gas, nuclear energy and carbon capture and sequestration technologies. That assumes a coordinated strategy including energy storage and transmission, which is already developing under the Obama Administration's "smart grid" program.

The study also took the likelihood of a carbon cap or tax structure into account. Although it might seem safe to assume that such a structure would result in higher prices, the UC-Berkeley team found that the SunShot goal of affordable solar power would be more than enough to counterbalance that effect.

The result would be a savings of 14 percent annually by 2050, while achieving carbon reduction goals and of course, creating jobs in solar manufacturing, installation and maintenance.

Speaking of job creation, it's worth noting that the private sector partner in the study is the advanced battery technology company Seeo, which was founded specifically to commercialize cutting edge technology developed at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The "Job-Killing" Keystone XL Pipeline

It's an open secret that the tar sands oil to be transported through the Keystone XL pipeline is intended for the export market and it will do nothing to alleviate high petroleum prices in the U.S. That leaves job creation as the only meaningful point in its favor.

In that context, it's fair to ask whether the number of jobs created by Keystone, however many it might be, will be enough to compensate for the potential economic damage and job loss that would result if the pipeline leaks or breaks.

A piece in The New York Times this past weekend provides a glimpse of just how great the damage can be from a tar sands oil spill, judging from the effects of the Kalamazoo River pipeline spill in Michgan and the Mayflower, Arkansas spill.

Come to think of it, if Keystone supporters really mean to argue their case for job creation, they can point to the Kalamazoo River spill, too. Yes, there has been damage to the local economy,but the spill has succeeded in creating numerous jobs in remediation, relocation and related fields.

Let's also not forget to take a look at latest quarterly report from NRG Energy. If that name rings a bell, you could be thinking of one of the solar energy projects the company has embarked upon. Even though last quarter's earnings were described as "disappointing" overall, NRG's solar projects provided it with some good news, prompting CEO David Crane to say (emphasis added):

If there is a silver lining it is that in 2014 we will be in a much better position to reap the benefit of long term strategic plan to diversify our financial performance away from 100% dependence on cyclical commodity risk into a broader and more resilient set of revenue streams.

If fossil fuel dependency is too risky for a industry leader like NRG, that ought to tell you something about the future direction of the U.S. energy landscape, Keystone or no Keystone.

[Image: Courtesy of U.S. Navy]

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Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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