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Jobs vs. the environment?

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jackiewheeler | Apr 14, 2011 03:45 PM

A few weeks ago in this space, I bemoaned the slow pace of green energy development in the face of nuclear disaster in Japan and oil-spill devastation in the Gulf of Mexico. As a consumer of both these dirty fuels, I feel complicit in and mostly helpless to change this unsustainable state. I have steadfastly attempted to educate myself in the technical and scientific complexity of both old and new energy sources, but this is no walk in the park for a middle-aged English teacher or, I imagine, for most people outside university or corporate Physics and Electrical Engineering departments. Our only hope, I wrote, is to speak up, not as experts but as citizens fed up with the costs and inequities built in to dirty energy production processes.

Luckily, I got some thoughtful and interesting responses from fellow HCN readers. Nolan Patrick Veesart wrote “if the subsidies that are going to Big Renewables were instead going to homeowners and small businesses (like home-town electrical contractors) Jackie's fears about cost, learning curve, and feelings of guilt would vanish as there would be trained local electricians to do installation and service work (of solar or wind technology) and the price of installing home systems would be reduced.” He was responding to another comment by Janine Blaeloch, who agreed with me that “Big Energy in most any form is becoming a more and more obvious mistake,” but warned that “Big Renewables are in line to become the next biological nightmare.”

Well, lo and behold, a “Big Renewable,” First Solar, has just announced their plans to locate a large solar panel factory here in the Phoenix area, and while I definitely see where Veesart and Blaeloch are coming from, I have to admit that, three years into a punishing recession, I’m having some trouble working up strong indignation over this piece of news. Mainly, it’s hard to sneeze at the predicted 600 desperately needed local jobs with an “average wage of $48,000 for a range of positions including assembly work and engineering professions.” While undoubtedly such positions will come with some occupational hazards, it’s difficult to imagine that they’ll be on par with those encountered by uranium miners or oil-derrick workers (maybe other HCN readers can weigh in on this?) Also, a trip to First Solar’s website managed to convince – even impress -- me that the company at least wants to be seen as environmentally responsible; for example, they promise to collect and recycle all solar panels they sell at the end of their “useful life.” Panel owners can conveniently request pick-up from the site itself. Likewise, the factory itself will be mostly powered by solar panels (a no-brainer) and it will be located at the old GM Proving Ground site, avoiding further incursion into the rapidly disappearing desert in the region.

I realize I’m starting to sound suspiciously “booster-ish” here, so I’ll finish on a more cautious note. Veesart and Blaeloch are right about some important considerations. First Solar did indeed get massive subsidies from the state of Arizona and regional counties and cities. Meanwhile, education, indigent healthcare, and environmental preservation budgets are at all time lows. The company itself, like all corporations, is profit-driven and has already shown its willingness to send jobs offshore when it helps the bottom line (while it’s headquarters are in Tempe, Arizona, it is building a factory in Vietnam and already has one in Germany, according to the website). Likewise, since First Solar’s primary market is commercial, it isn’t likely to be much help to local individuals of modest means wanting to install panels. Blaeloch rightly notes that such grassroots reform is less likely to result in  grisly industrial accidents and pollution.

Jobs versus environmental health and justice? I’m not sure the trade-off is quite so stark in this instance, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

Essays in the A Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Dr. Jacqueline Wheeler is the Writing Programs Associate Director at Arizona State University.

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