When Hawaii mandated shifting from fossil fuels to renewables to power the state over the next 30 years, it wasn’t only about saving the planet. It was also about strengthening the state’s economy.
Importing fuel drains billions of dollars from Hawaii each year, the Legislature found, and renewables could staunch the drain and tap “an explosion of new markets, jobs, and local energy resources.”
Five years after passing the historic 2015 law, Hawaii is moving toward generating all the electricity sold in the state with renewable resources by 2045. More than a fourth of the state’s electricity needs were met with renewables in 2018, the Hawaiian Electric Industries said in its 2018 annual report.
And exactly how many new jobs have been created? The short answer is nobody knows.
There are plenty of jobs, no doubt, from salespeople and electricians selling and installing solar systems to lawyers who specialize in regulatory law and drafting purchase agreements between wind and solar farms and the utilities. But exactly how many jobs there are isn’t clear. Estimates range from several thousand to well over 10,000.
The problem: the explosion of renewable energy technology has happened so quickly, in Hawaii and elsewhere, that the usual sources for job statistics haven’t caught up. A major issue is that clean energy jobs often fall into a variety of job classifications that might seem unrelated to energy at all, much less renewables. An electrician who specializes in solar installations, for instance, might be classified simply as an electrician.
The upshot is that timely data is scant, at best. Even the federal government’s venerable Bureau of Labor Statistics, which produces jobs data and reports like the Consumer Price Index to track inflation, says its renewable energy jobs numbers aren’t the best.
Meanwhile, the latest report produced by Hawaii’s Department of Labor and Industrial Relations dates back to 2015, and its estimates are far below those published in a U.S. Department of Energy report published in 2017. State energy officials say the federal DOE report has the best available data, but even that report is years old.
Having reliable renewable energy jobs numbers is important because data often drives policy. Policymakers are still adjusting laws and regulations to move the state to its 100% renewables goal. And a program’s ability to create jobs can be a litmus test for lawmakers deciding whether to support it, said Will Giese, executive director of the Hawaii Solar Energy Association.
“Every legislator wants to know, what is the job impact?” he said. “How many jobs is this creating?”
The problem, Giese said, is that there’s no official source of data that’s authoritative, comprehensive and up to date. At least not one he knows about.
“If you can find it, please let me know,” he said.
To be sure, numbers exist. They’re just old, incomplete or produced by sources with a potential bias, or some combination of those.
Perhaps the most comprehensive report on clean energy in Hawaii, for instance, was produced in April 2018 by the Rhodium Group for the Elemental Excelerator, a business incubator that focuses on renewable energy startups. The study pegged Hawaii’s number of renewable energy jobs at 15,660, including industries like clean fuels, energy storage, efficiency and electricity generation.
That was in the same ballpark as numbers in a 2017 U.S. Department of Energy report, which reported just under 13,000 jobs related to renewable energy out of a total of about 17,000 jobs in Hawaii, including efficiency, alternative fuels and generation from solar and wind.
Solar energy jobs alone totaled more than 4,800 positions statewide, the energy department said. That’s about 25% higher than the estimates from the Hawaii solar energy trade group. It reckons there are about 4,000 jobs statewide, Giese said, including positions installing and designing rooftop solar photovoltaic systems.
Meanwhile, Hawaiian Electric Co. has about 200 full-time positions focused on renewables, including jobs dealing with rooftop solar systems and acquiring electricity from large wind and solar farms, said Shannon Tangonan, a HECO spokeswoman.
If the differences between these sources seem big, consider numbers from a University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization report released in August. Although the report focused on “natural resources management” jobs, like positions with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, it included a section on energy jobs and had numbers from a 2015 report by the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, which was based on a survey.
DLIR pegged the number of green energy jobs at about 4,900 in 2015 compared with just over 3,800 in 2010.
The most recent data, from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows stunningly low estimates for green energy jobs in Hawaii. Estimates for March 2019, put statewide jobs related to solar power generation at just 57, compared with just more than 2,000 jobs related to making electricity with fossil fuel.
Rick Wise, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, D.C., said it’s probably better to rely on the 2017 Department of Energy report, which was based on surveys. The limitation of the BLS numbers, he said, is that they might not capture solar energy jobs that are captured under different occupation categories.
It was only in 2012 that solar power generation got its own industry category in the North American Industry Classification System, which the bureau uses to count jobs, Wise said.
“Even then, we don’t have an industry code for certain things related to the solar industry,” he said.
The solar industry association’s Giese said an entity like the Hawaii State Energy Office should step up and start getting data. But Alan Yonan Jr., a spokesman for the office, said the energy office doesn’t have staff economists to do such an analysis.
And while Yonan said the 2017 DOE report had the best available data, Eugene Tian, who runs the state Research and Economic Analysis Division said the office doesn’t have the money to conduct such a study and that it would be difficult to replicate the DOE’s methodology.
The DOE study involved extensive telephone surveys of employers.
Bill Kuntsman, a spokesman for the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, agreed that good data isn’t easy to get.
“Sometimes John Q. Public thinks the government just has all these statistics,” he said. “But that’s not always the case.”
“Hawaii’s Changing Economy” series is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.