If the wager were $1,000, which of the following would you say is true?
A. Per worker, employees at fossil fuel companies produce somewhat more electricity than those at wind and solar energy companies.
B. Workers in both industries produce roughly the same amount of electricity per worker.
C. Employees at wind and solar energy companies produce somewhat more electricity per worker than those at fossil fuel energy companies.
D. None of the above.
The answer is important because electricity is required for just about everything we do, whether cooking food, operating on a heart, or simply reading a book at night. Electricity fuels civilization; it must be abundant, affordable, and reliable in order for humans to flourish.
Supporters of wind and solar energy present these industries as modern, competitive, and poised to replace fossil fuels in a “great energy transition.” One of their “selling points” is that generating so-called renewable energy creates more jobs. Indeed, it does—but is this a pro or a con?
According to the January 2020 U.S. Energy and Employment Report, approximately 363,000 people were then working to generate electricity from wind and solar sources, and approximately 214,000 people were employed in generating electricity from natural gas, coal, and oil.1 How much power did each group produce? The bp Statistical Review of World Energy 2020 shows that the United States obtained 489.8 terawatt hours from wind and solar, and 2,774.4 terawatt hours from fossil fuels, of which almost all was from natural gas and coal.2 This means that producing a terawatt of electricity from wind and solar requires roughly 741 workers. Using fossil fuels, producing that terawatt requires only 77 workers. So, it takes almost ten wind and solar workers to produce the same amount of electricity as one fossil fuel worker.
Table 1. Electricity produced and number of workers required:
This difference is not slight, falling within a reasonable margin of error. It is exponential. Fossil fuel energy is very reliable, dense, abundant, and flexible, whereas wind and solar sporadically produce dilute energy and require 100 percent backup from reliable electricity sources. When you need a job done, do you hire one highly productive person or ten relatively unproductive ones? Should we be striving to create more jobs in energy—or to free up people for more productive uses of their time?
Two hundred years ago, about 90 percent of humanity worked in food production—and they used human and animal muscle power to do that work. Today, in large part thanks to labor-saving machines, only about 5 percent of people work in agriculture—yet the supply, quality, and reliability are far greater. Should we give up these advances and “create more jobs” by reverting to backbreaking work that requires exponentially more laborers? Anyone who thinks so clearly is no friend of human progress and prosperity.
Optimizing for job creation means optimizing for inefficiency. Sustained over the long term, this spells stagnation and poverty. By contrast, optimizing for productivity leads to wealth and flourishing.
And, as capitalistic economies have shown time and again, we need not worry about machines taking our jobs. With technological improvements come greater division of labor and specialization in new areas.
The people working to produce electricity from fossil fuels are amazingly productive, nearly ten times more so than those producing “renewable” wind and solar energy. Given that we depend on energy for virtually every life-sustaining activity, their incredible efficiency benefits us all in countless ways.
So the next time someone tells you to invest in—or help tilt the political playing field in favor of—“renewable energy,” think twice.
Oh, and by the way, the answer to the multiple choice question I began with is D. None of the above, because, per worker, those at fossil fuel companies produce far more electricity than do those working at wind and solar companies.
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1. Energy Futures Initiative (EFI) and the National Association of State Energy Officials (NASEO), “The U.S. Energy & Employment Report,” https://www.usenergyjobs.org/s/USEER-2020-0615.pdf.
2. Statistical Review of World Energy 2020, https://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/business-sites/en/global/corporate/pdfs/energy-economics/statistical-review/bp-stats-review-2020-full-report.pdf.