Building Solar Farms May Not Build the Middle Class

Some of the wealthiest companies in the world are investing in the green economy. But they’re not investing in paying union wages.

A nearly 2,000-acre solar farm under construction near Flint, Mich., is one of several projects around the country being developed by Ranger Power.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

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By Noam Scheiber

To hear Democrats tell it, a green job is supposed to be a good job — and not just good for the planet.

The Green New Deal, first introduced in 2019, sought to “create millions of good, high-wage jobs.” And in March, when President Biden unveiled his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, he emphasized the “good-paying” union jobs it would produce while reining in climate change.

“My American Jobs Plan will put hundreds of thousands of people to work,” Mr. Biden said, “paying the same exact rate that a union man or woman would get.”

But on its current trajectory, the green economy is shaping up to look less like the industrial workplace that lifted workers into the middle class in the 20th century than something more akin to an Amazon warehouse or a fleet of Uber drivers: grueling work schedules, few unions, middling wages and limited benefits.

Kellogg Dipzinski has seen this up close, at Assembly Solar, a nearly 2,000-acre solar farm under construction near Flint, Mich.

“Hey I see your ads for help,” Mr. Dipzinski, an organizer with the local electrical workers union, texted the site’s project manager in May. “We have manpower. I’ll be out that way Friday.”

“Hahahahaha …. yes — help needed on unskilled low wage workers,” was the response. “Competing with our federal government for unemployment is tough.”

For workers used to the pay standards of traditional energy industries, such declarations may be jarring. Building an electricity plant powered by fossil fuels usually requires hundreds of electricians, pipe fitters, millwrights and boilermakers who typically earn more than $100,000 a year in wages and benefits when they are unionized.

But on solar farms, workers are often nonunion construction laborers who earn an hourly wage in the upper teens with modest benefits — even as the projects are backed by some of the largest investment firms in the world. In the case of Assembly Solar, the backer is D.E. Shaw, with more than $50 billion in assets under management, whose renewable energy arm owns and will operate the plant.

While Mr. Biden has proposed higher wage floors for such work, the Senate prospects for this approach are murky. And absent such protections — or even with them — there’s a nagging concern among worker advocates that the shift to green jobs may reinforce inequality rather than alleviate it.

“The clean tech industry is incredibly anti-union,” said Jim Harrison, the director of renewable energy for the Utility Workers Union of America. “It’s a lot of transient work, work that is marginal, precarious and very difficult to be able to organize.”

The Lessons of 2009

Since 2000, the United States has lost about two million private-sector union jobs, which pay above-average wages. To help revive such “high-quality middle-class” employment, as Mr. Biden refers to it, he has proposed federal subsidies to plug abandoned oil and gas wells, build electric vehicles and charging stations and speed the transition to renewable energy.

Industry studies, including one cited by the White House, suggest that vastly increasing the number of wind and solar farms could produce over half a million jobs a year over the next decade — primarily in construction and manufacturing.

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