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The Midwest bucked a national trend last year, adding 3,900 renewable energy jobs thanks in part to the impact of Illinois’ Future Energy Jobs Act.

That’s according to a report released Wednesday by the Clean Energy Trust and E2, a national nonpartisan organization of business leaders and investors.

The region also added more than 7,600 energy efficiency jobs but lost ground in other clean energy job sectors such as clean fuels, advanced grid, and advanced transportation.

Overall, the 12 states included in the analysis had more than 714,000 clean energy jobs in 2017, a 1.2 percent decrease compared to 2016.

The energy efficiency sector accounted for the most clean energy jobs, and the bulk of the jobs are in manufacturing and construction. And across the Midwest, clean energy jobs significantly outnumbered, sometimes exponentially, employment in the fossil fuel industry, the report notes.

Nationally, the same organizations identified 3.2 million clean energy jobs, also a decrease. The decline was driven largely by jobs lost in the advanced transportation sector, which suffered competition from Europe and Japan in the hybrid, fuel-cell and electric vehicles markets.

Clean energy job growth was also apparently hampered by the tight labor market, with about three-quarters of clean energy employers in the Midwest reporting they struggled to fill job openings.

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Policy matters

The report showed the impact of policy, experts said, including the positive impact of the law in Illinois and the stagnation or loss of clean energy jobs in Wisconsin and Ohio, where state policy has been hostile to renewables.

“From this report, policymakers can see that clean energy is a good job creation plan,” E2 Midwest Advocate Micaela Preskill said. “In Illinois, FEJA passed a year and a half ago, and now Illinois leads the region in renewable energy. Minnesota has a requirement for utilities to provide 25 percent from renewables by 2025. Because of this strong policy, Minnesota like Illinois has seen significant [job] growth.”

All but two Midwest states surveyed added renewable energy jobs, with 30 percent of the total growth coming in Illinois, where the Future Energy Jobs Act fixed problems with the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard and created new incentives for renewables.

While Illinois’ law created particularly strong incentives and mandates for new solar development, solar jobs in Illinois and across the Midwest actually declined from 2016, when developers hired many workers to complete projects before tax incentives expired. There were more than 38,000 solar jobs in the Midwest in 2017, and more than 35,000 wind jobs.

Ohio saw some growth since its energy efficiency and renewable portfolio standards were reinstated in 2017 following a two-year freeze.

Geoff Greenfield, founder of Third Sun Solar in Athens, Ohio, noted that, “I live and work in one of the most impoverished counties in the region, and I’m proud of my company’s ability to contribute to the local and regional economy.

“Demand for clean energy solutions is surging across Ohio and the region, but we have so much more room to grow. My hope is that policymakers can make more of this opportunity and support clean energy development.”

While policy is crucial to the future of clean energy jobs, advocates also point out that the economics and apparent inevitability of increasing smart technology and renewable energy mean the sectors can grow even in the face of unfriendly policy.

Even in Wisconsin’s hostile regulatory environment, for example, advanced grid jobs grew significantly, with energy storage making up the majority of the sector. Electric vehicle-related jobs also increased in some states despite the overall downturn in that sector, a trend likely exacerbated by uncertainty leading up to the recent rollback of fuel economy standards.

Training needed

With low unemployment nationwide, filling newly created clean energy jobs can be a challenge.

“We’re in a time with historic low unemployment — competition for talent is fierce across all industries,” said Phil Jordan, a co-author of the report, with the firm BW Research Partnership.

“Training providers and businesses really need to start tapping into often neglected pools of talent that still exist, but that do come with some challenges: issues of long-term unemployment and long-term poverty. We do think there are tremendous opportunities for people who have been out of the labor market a long time to really get into good careers.”

In Illinois, where solar developers have been hiring engineers, designers, installers, accountants, electricians and various other types of employees, training programs created under FEJA are considered crucial.

Julio Ibarra, a resident of Chicago’s heavily industrial Southeast Side, started his own solar and sustainability consulting company, Positive 617, after completing a training program funded by the law.

“We received vital industry training and we all had great success in finding jobs and new careers,” he said. “I’m thrilled about Illinois’ future in regards to renewable energy and green solutions. The Midwest leads the way and shows no signs of slowing down.”

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.