Rural landowners make $222 million per year renting their land for wind turbines.
The solar energy industry added more than 30,000 jobs last year, employing more than 200,000 people.
A group of Republican and Democratic governors focused on these and other economic points in a letter to President Donald Trump on Monday, urging the Republican climate skeptic to support wind and solar power.
President Trump’s support for fossil fuels and his threat to pull out of the Paris climate agreement have raised questions about the future of renewable energy in the United States.
But experts say the jobs created by the rapidly growing industry could go to China if the United States pulls back from climate action.
Spinning wind into gold
Ohio seems like an unlikely place to find strong support for wind power. It ranks just 26th in megawatts of installed capacity.
“[Ohioans] look around and see very few wind turbines and say, ‘There’s not much wind business in the U.S.,'” says sales VP Doug Herr at turbine part maker AeroTorque. “But what they don’t realize is, there’s companies making gears, there’s companies making specialized clutches like us.”
In fact, Ohio has more companies in the wind power industry than any other state.
And demand for those companies’ products is growing.
Utilities added more renewable energy generation than fossil fuels in four of the last five years. Wind industry jobs grew 20 percent in 2015, to more than 88,000, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
“When you talk about the growth of renewables and particularly the growth of wind, it’s going to drive domestic manufacturing jobs,” Herr says. “And that’s gold.”
President Trump’s “America First Energy Plan” explicitly backs oil, gas and coal. It makes no mention of renewables.
The bipartisan group of governors urged him to keep supporting U.S. renewables research and development, or else “we will cede leadership in these critical technologies to other nations that have demonstrated ongoing high priority commitments to these technologies, such as China.”
“If we don’t step up and lead and move into the future on this, these jobs are moving to China. These jobs are moving to India. They already have.”
Five of the top 10 wind turbine makers and five of the top six solar panel companies are Chinese, according to a report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
The Chinese renewable energy industry has blossomed with solid backing from the government.
“China has been the largest investor in clean energy for the last few years,” says China expert Ranping Song with the World Resources Institute. In 2015, China invested $100 billion in renewables, more than twice what the United States did. Beijing has announced plans to pour more than $360 billion into clean energy through 2020, which it says will create 13 million jobs.
The Chinese government has three solid motivations to pursue clean energy, Song says. Energy security is one.
The second is the potential to dominate a growing industry. “China actually sees really good global opportunities to export this green technology, because every country will want to have them,” Song says.
The government’s plan to tackle toxic air pollution is a third, he adds. “If China wants to clean up its environment, then they will need to replace existing, polluting power from coal power plants with more clean, renewable sources like solar and wind.”
“For China, it’s very clear. The government is all behind this agenda,” Song says.
Not backing away
When the United States elected a climate doubter as president, some observers thought that Beijing would back away from action on climate change.
“What we’re seeing is exactly the opposite,” says Paula Caballero, global director of the World Resources Institute’s climate program. “Right after the election there was very strong messaging from China about the importance of (the Paris climate agreement), about the fact that they were going to keep delivering on it.”
It’s not clear that the United States will back away, either.
Trump’s pick for energy secretary, Rick Perry, was governor of Texas as the state became a global leader in wind power generation.
Plus, the cost of wind power has fallen 41 percent since 2008. Solar is down 64 percent. They now compete with fossil fuels on price.
That’s why Doug Herr is confident about the future.
“It’s going to come down to economics around the world. And whether or not you’re a believer or not a believer in global warming, the economics (of renewables) wins.”