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Red States, Green Jobs: Clean Economic Growth in the South

J. Mijin Cha

Mississippi Solar LLC and Electrical Contracting Enterprises LLC install solar panels on poultry houses

Here's one more reason to be puzzled by the GOP's animus toward green jobs: It turns out that the clean economy is disproportionately fueling economic growth and opportunity in states that tend to send Republicans to Congress -- states that are also struggling with high rates of unemployment and poverty. 

The South has the largest number of clean economy jobs, with seven of the top twenty-one states for clean economy jobs. Among them, Florida has over 100,000 clean economy jobs. Georgia has over 83,700 and Tennessee has over 76,000. At the same time, the South also suffers from the highest rates of poverty in the country. Clean economy investments provide much needed jobs and economic growth in these high poverty areas. By cutting clean economy programs and incentives, conservatives are threatening one of the strongest economic engines in the South. 

In Mississippi, which has an unemployment rate over 10 percent and the highest poverty rate in the nation at 22.7 percent, green jobs are expected to grow by 18.5 percent in the next decade, much higher than the overall expected job growth rate of 12 percent. Recently, a 100-megawatt solar panel production facility opened in Hattiesburg and plans are underway to build multiple sites statewide to turn woodchips into biofuel. Currently, the state has more than 17,000 green jobs, a number that will only grow with strong governmental support. 

Mississippi’s neighbor, Louisiana, has a poverty rate of 21.6 percent. It also expects green jobs to grow by 13.8 percent, while overall job growth will be only 8 percent. Currently, Baton Rouge has the most green jobs, but New Orleans is expected to be the leader in green jobs due to a series of planned public and private investment in emerging green technologies. The emergence of a thriving clean economy in Louisiana is somewhat surprising as the state produces one-third of the country’s oil and one-third of the hazardous waste. However, targeted efforts, like the Sustainable Industries Initiative, and generous tax credits, including a 50 percent refundable credit on solar energy, have spurred strong clean economic growth.

One of the strongest clean energy economies in the South is Tennessee. It has a stronger economic profile than other states in the South with an unemployment rate of 9.7 percent and a poverty rate of 16.7 percent. Tennessee anticipates 10,000 green jobs, more than any other sector, to be created by 2014. Tennessee prioritized making the state an attractive place for clean economy investment through building up the state’s technical capacity. As a result, the state was able to attract $5.5 billion in clean economy investment from six major companies, including Hemlock Semiconductor, Volkswagen, and Nissan Leaf and Storage Battery Manufacturing. 

These examples show the great potential of the clean economy to reverse downward trends in sectors like manufacturing, help reduce poverty rates and, most importantly, create jobs—jobs that, on average, pay a better wage than median wages. Unfortunately, conservatives continue their attack on a clean economy future with their most recent budget proposal aiming to eliminate the Department of Labor’s Green Jobs Innovation Program. This year, the program provided $38 million in grants to programs serving workers in 19 states and the District of Columbia to help provide job training in clean economy industries. Besides equipping workers with the skills they need, the grants also help employers by providing training for industry-recognized credentials employers rely upon. 

The evidence clearly indicates that clean energy investments provide strong economic returns through job creation and economic growth. Increasing investments will increase these numbers. It’s a much better bet than protecting millionaires.