Building equity into the renewable energy transition

Community and labor organizers shape New Mexico’s changing economy.


This year, the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station just outside of Shiprock, New Mexico, is scheduled to shut down. When it does, it will leave behind a legacy of air and water pollution and land degradation in northwest New Mexico. It will also leave hundreds out of work in the Navajo Nation’s largest community.

“Our region has borne the brunt of the fossil fuel industry,” said Joseph F. Hernandez, the Diné energy organizer for the NAVA Education Project and Navajo Nation member who lives in Shiprock. “We have sacrificed a lot just to supply that American energy,” he said. “What is needed is for our community to heal.”

Joseph F. Hernandez, the Diné energy organizer for the NAVA Education Project, speaks with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland about halting oil and gas development around Chaco Canyon, near his family’s own home allotment.
Courtesy of Joseph F. Hernandez

In the Four Corners region, the energy transition is already underway. Smokestacks are falling as solar farms sprout in the desert. For community and labor organizers, the challenge moving forward isn’t simply replacing fossil-fueled power plants with solar panels and wind turbines, it’s ensuring that workers and communities are prepared for the transition and have a say in it.

New Mexico is one of six Western states with laws on the books aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Energy Transition Act, which New Mexico passed in 2019, focuses on eliminating emissions from energy production, with the goal of producing 100% carbon-free energy by 2050.

As states set clean energy benchmarks, environmental organizations and think tanks are crunching the numbers and designing plans to achieve the required emissions reductions. A series of studies released last year, covering New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado, charts a path for each state to zero out carbon emissions by 2050. 

Their analysis has some good news: In each state, the transition to renewable energy will be a source of job growth. Fossil fuel jobs will be lost, but the studies found that the investments to decarbonize would create large numbers of jobs relative to business as usual. In New Mexico, the study projects that by 2030 the state will see 9,000 more jobs across the economy, as the state switches from fossil fuels to renewables. By 2050, the economic analysis projects that if the state economy transitioned to 100% renewables across all sectors, not just utilities, nearly 100,000 more jobs would be created.

The policy advocates who produced the decarbonization studies made wide-ranging policy recommendations to ensure that the new jobs pay well and are accessible to people of all educational backgrounds, ethnicities and identities. Key among the recommendations is the importance of creating career-track jobs through contracts that require projects hire apprentices, and mandate diverse hiring practices. A 2017 study of renewable projects in Kern County, California showed solar power plant construction can bring career track jobs to traditionally disadvantaged workers. The study, by the University of California Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, found that large-scale solar projects, which were completed with union labor agreements, created high-quality career-track jobs for workers from disadvantaged and underrepresented communities. Entry-level electrical workers would start at just above $16 an hour, on a career path that would see them earning $40 an hour after five years.

Community organizers and policy advocates also want clean energy jobs to reflect the needs of the communities most affected by the transition. “This new industry is coming,” Hernandez said. “We want to make sure the workforce is a strong Navajo workforce.” 

Training for — and creating — jobs in the construction trades is essential as jobs leave the fossil fuel industry and switch to renewable energy. That’s because most of the opportunities created by economy-wide changes will be in traditional construction work, involving electricians, carpenters, mechanics and operators. “Traditional occupations, that’s where most of the work is; very little of it is in specialized ‘green jobs,’ ” said Betony Jones, the co-author of the employment analysis portion of the decarbonization reports and founder of Inclusive Economics, a research organization focused on labor and equity in the energy transition. The expansion of general trades rather than niche work is likely to be good news for laborers and trades workers. “The data shows green jobs that are more isolated, single-skill occupations, pay substantially less than the traditional occupation they’re replacing,” Jones said. “A solar installer earns less than a roofer.”

“One of our greatest resources is our ability to turn apprentices into craft professionals.”

Workers secure rooftop solar panels in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A study estimates that 100,000 jobs will be created by 2050 if the state switches from fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy.
Sergio Flores/Bloomberg via Getty Images

With the bulk of job creation coming in construction trades, unions in New Mexico are preparing for the transition — “working hard to stay up to date with changing opportunities,” according to Brian Condit, the executive director of the New Mexico Building and Construction Trades Council. Condit said that decarbonization’s impact on unions and the New Mexico workforce depends on ensuring that the transition is implemented in a way that focuses on safety and on-the-job training, which he sees labor unions playing a major role in. “One of our greatest resources is our ability to turn apprentices into craft professionals,” he said.

On the Navajo Nation, Hernandez is busy working with communities to take advantage of the changes underway while maintaining their autonomy. “We want to ensure community consultation,” he said. “Some communities don’t want large utility-scale solar.”

Once communities are educated and empowered to decide what works for them, Hernandez hopes that young people will move back to the Navajo Nation. He said he’s optimistic that future generations can expand agriculture and diversify the local economy, rather than be forced to rely on industries that destroy the health of the land and people. “We’re looking towards an economy that doesn’t sacrifice anybody.”

Carl Segerstrom, a former editor at High Country News, writes from Spokane, Washington. 


We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

Note: This story has been updated to reflect that coal miners won’t be losing jobs as the San Juan Generating Station closes. They were laid off amidst the pandemic.

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