NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Green energy equals job growth - you probably read it in a headline and assumed it was true.
With U.S. unemployment at 9.6%, Americans are looking for reasons to feel good about the direction the country is headed. Now that
is backing the development of an offshore wind market and the United Steelworkers are saying that China's emerging alternative energy sector is taking U.S. jobs, green energy seems like it could jolt the job market.
The idea that green energy could create enough jobs to propel the economy is lacking a critical element: data. Other than the annual reports alternative-energy trade groups use to lobby the government, there has been little effort to study trends in green energy hiring.
That's about to change, but not overnight. The effort to show that green energy is bringing a noticeable number of jobs to the U.S. economy is just getting started, and it could be a few years before the data is reliable.
This year the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which tracks every job created in the U.S., received money from the federal budget to study the green energy job market. Until results are released, Americans are taking a leap of faith when it comes to betting on green energy. And so far, progress in creating a new green economy has been spotty.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed last year allocated more than $80 billion to expanding renewable energy sources, improving the U.S. power grid and adding more eco-friendly cars to U.S. highways. The goal was also to create jobs.
Vice President Joe Biden's office recently released a report about Recovery Act programs that cited 100 key projects, including the 20-megawatt flywheel energy storage plant developed by
in Stephentown, N.Y. The project aims to add 20 construction jobs and 40 permanent jobs.
The same day Beacon Power touted its inclusion in the Biden report through a press release, the Nasdaq Stock Market informed the company that its shares might be delisted because they fell short of the $1 minimum bid price. Beacon Power shares, currently trading at 35 cents, haven't eclipsed the $1 mark in more than a year. Beacon Power said this week it was denied a second loan commitment from the federal government.
Wind power was another focus of the Biden report, even though 2010 has been one of the worst years on record for the U.S. land-based wind power market.
During the second quarter, 700 megawatts of wind power were installed in the U.S., bringing the total to more than 1.2 gigawatts for the year, according to the American Wind Energy Association. That's the lowest level of wind power installation in the U.S. since 2007, and more than 50% less than what was installed in the same periods of 2008 and 2009. The trade group expects wind power installments in the U.S. to decline by 25% to 45% in 2010 compared with 2009.
, another company cited in the Biden report, are down more than 70% this year.
In another Recovery Act effort, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center received $24.7 million from the Energy Department to construct a wind-blade testing facility, the largest of its kind in the world. Biden's report said the project "could change the wind turbine manufacturing industry in America" when it's finished in February. However, only two new wind power facilities added during the first half of 2010, according to the AWEA.
While the wind power market could rebound, it's unclear if wind projects will create the jobs they intended to because there's no reliable data. Fortunately, the state of the solar job market is more encouraging.
The Solar Foundation conducted the first study of jobs in the green energy industry, surveying 2,400 companies. The think tank estimated that solar hiring would increase 26% next year to add 24,000 jobs. More than half of solar employers nationally plan to increase their workforce in the next year.
The Solar Foundation study discovered that there are 16,700 locations in the U.S. with 292,847 workers involved in the solar supply chain. About 32%, or 93,000 employees at these solar employment locations, spend at least 50% of time on solar business.
The study found that manufacturing remains a driver of job growth for the sector. However, that conclusion contrasts with recent new about U.S. alternative-energy companies moving manufacturing jobs abroad.
moved its manufacturing operations to China even though the Massachusetts government had supported the creation of a state-of-the-art plant in the U.S.
Energy Conversion Devices
recently said it was shipping more than 100 jobs from Michigan to Mexico.
"Solar is a global market. Despite some manufacturing moving overseas, domestic manufacturing is still growing," said Solar Foundation Executive Director Andrea Luecke. "U.S. markets could surge strongly in next couple of years prompting ever greater solar employment in the U.S."
, the leader in the solar sector, said this month that it plans to build two new factories in the U.S. and Vietnam. Each plant will create 600 jobs.
set up a manufacturing venture at a
plant in Milpitas, Calif. There was much fanfare around the SunPower decision, but it's a small operation compared to SunPower's plants in Malaysia.
The disparity between the Solar Foundation's data and industry developments raises questions about the value of employer-supplied information in gauging growth in green jobs.
"That's the bad news, but this is not some vague study either. There were more than 2,400 employers providing detailed survey answers," said John Bunge, a statistics professor at Cornell University who developed the study methodology for the Solar Foundation.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics plans to have its green energy employment database running by 2012, and publish its first study of the job market by winter 2012, according to Rick Clayton, head of the BLS' division of administrative statistics and labor turnover.
"We're working rapidly to develop a definition and it's consumed most of this year. The first time through is always the roughest," the BLS economist said, adding that the green energy industry doesn't fit existing job descriptions neatly.
The BLS effort will do for green energy what it has done for every other sector of the economy -- and what an employer-based survey like the Solar Foundation's can't do. By tracking changes in the green job market, the agency will provide the discussion points for economists and investors. Until then, the effectiveness of government-backed green energy development as an engine for job growth remains a question.
-- Written by Eric Rosenbaum at TheStreet.