How to safely put Americans to work building clean energy infrastructure

The jobs situation in America remains grim. This week saw a rise in the number of initial claims for jobless benefits, just as the virus is surging. And the number of “long-term” unemployed ticked up over 3 million. There are still 10 million fewer jobs prior to the pandemic. And the true number of those in need of work is far higher, with approximately 20 million collecting unemployment, and millions more out of the labor force entirely.

The measures put in place by Congress back in the spring have proven woefully inadequate to address the situation. One-off checks to families were spent long ago. PPP loans made to businesses in the hopes they kept employees on payroll were not large enough to sustain many. Bailouts to large corporations like airlines only delayed massive layoffs. And the Fed’s liquidity programs for mid-sized businesses were never used in the first place.

The strategy of putting the economy “into the economic equivalent of a medically induced coma” seemed sensible back in the spring. But this has lasted far longer than those short-term measures were designed for. Realistically we are not close to a return to normal, so we have to consider how to put people back to work safely so families can sustain themselves.

There are workers who cannot and should not work until there is vaccination due to health risks. This is where new, but sustained, relief spending is needed. But for others, we need genuine job-creating stimulus to put people back to work where it is possible to do so safely. The prior jobs in tourism, dining, and travel simply don’t exist anymore, though. So jobs in new sectors have to be created.

It turns out construction and clean energy are ideal places to put Americans back to work. Job creation in the construction industry writ large has been steady throughout the year, adding nearly 800,000 jobs back in the last 6 months. And even without a shred of federal support, nearly 200,000 clean energy jobs have been created in the last 5 months.

This is part of a larger global trend. Global renewable electricity installations will hit record levels in 2020. Ninety percent of all newly installed power generation capacity in the world will be renewable this year.

How is this possible during Covid? It turns out that outdoor construction work is relatively safe during the pandemic. And office buildings sit empty across the country, creating an ideal opportunity for safe building upgrades for efficiency and clean energy. And in OSHA’s categorization of risky tasks per occupation, it deems no construction-related tasks have a “very high” risk of Covid.

This all matches perfectly with the cornerstone pledge of President-Elect Biden’s campaign. Perhaps his most salient policy commitment was to invest federal funds in the construction of clean energy infrastructure to create jobs.

The Clean Energy Accelerator is the critical, flexible tool that Congress and President-Elect Biden must adopt to take advantage of this job-creating opportunity. The formation of this national green bank would create millions of jobs, mobilize private investment, create small businesses, and drive targeted investment to frontline and disadvantaged communities. The Accelerator has passed the House 2x this year, and is endorsed and co-sponsored by VP-Elect Harris.

Flexibility is key. The Accelerator can direct its investments into specific sectors, project-types and geographies to create jobs where and when its possible. The Fed’s liquidity programs are a perfect example of what happens when Congress appropriates hundreds of billions of dollars to a static program that misses the mark because the economic situation is fluid. So flexibility is essential. And because the Accelerator leverages 3 private dollars for each public one, job creation is also multiplied by 3x.

It’s no longer viable for federal spending to focus purely on pandemic disaster relief. This has gone on too long to ignore the task of job creation where it is safe and viable to do so. Nothing fits this need than construction of clean energy infrastructure, and no policy is more fit-for-purpose than the Accelerator.

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