A power tool rests atop newly installed solar panels. Credit: Kristelle Batucal / Flickr / U.S. Department of Energy

States with weaker policies are still seeing clean energy job growth thanks to changes within traditional industries.

Michigan, Indiana and Ohio aren’t known for progressive climate change policies, yet the three states rank among the highest in the Midwest for clean energy jobs, according to a new survey.

The fourth annual Clean Energy Jobs Midwest report suggests strong state and federal policies like energy standards or emission-reduction goals are key to driving clean energy job growth. Yet Michigan, Ohio and Indiana — with relatively weak clean energy policies compared to states like Illinois and Minnesota — are in the top four for total number of clean energy jobs.

That’s because industries that traditionally have boosted the Midwest economy — particularly automotive and manufacturing — are now also playing a key role in supporting clean energy growth.

“Michigan and Ohio really benefit from manufacturing and the manufacturing supply chain,” said Erik Birkerts, CEO of Chicago-based Clean Energy Trust. “They have a strong industrial base that is manufacturing components, pieces and parts for the broader clean energy industry.”

The report was sponsored by Clean Energy Trust and Environmental Entrepreneurs and was based on data collected for the 2019 U.S. Energy and Employment Report.

Michigan is the largest clean energy employer (126,081 jobs) among 12 states surveyed, followed by Illinois (123,247), Ohio (112,486) and Indiana (86,900).

Across the region, manufacturing accounts for 30.6% of all clean energy jobs. In Michigan, Indiana and Ohio, manufacturing is 56.8%, 46% and 33.9% of clean energy jobs, respectively. In Illinois, manufacturing represents less than 20% of clean energy jobs.

A 2018 report showed Ohio, in particular, could net $13.8 billion in new investment by boosting renewable energy supply chains and electric vehicle production.

As a whole, the advanced transportation sector bounced back from job losses in 2017, boosting jobs by 15.4%, largely driven by electric vehicle sales. Advanced transportation is the second-largest clean energy employer in the Midwest, with nearly 92,000 jobs.

While the energy efficiency sector is the largest clean energy employer in all 12 states, advanced transportation made gains in every state except Missouri. Michigan and Indiana are the top two advanced transportation employers in the region.

“Across the region, only the traditional automotive industry powerhouse of Michigan put more people to work in the advanced transportation sector in 2018” than Indiana, the report says.

“Part of the story in Michigan is advanced transportation. There’s a rich history of car makers,” said Micaela Preskill, Midwest advocate for Environmental Entrepreneurs.

Preskill cited a similar automotive trend in Indiana, where advanced transportation jobs grew by 18.3% last year, or about 2,600 jobs. Illinois, too, added 2,144 advanced transportation jobs in 2018.

“We’re seeing significant increases in consumer demand for electric vehicles that are leading to job growth,” she said.

Preskill said job gains are “increasingly under threat” from the federal government, particularly with the Trump administration’s proposed rollbacks of mileage and vehicle-emission standards.

“Hopefully members of Congress will get wise and stop the Trump administration’s job-killing policies,” Preskill said.

Other takeaways from the report:

State and federal policies matter.

Preskill said Illinois’ 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act and proposed legislation calling for 100 percent renewables by 2050 is boosting interest in the state. The state saw “significant growth” in the renewable generation and energy efficiency sectors last year. Minnesota — with a 25% by 2025 renewable energy standard and Gov. Tim Walz’s goal for carbon-free power by 2050 — increased employment in renewable energy generation by 12% last year, the largest increase in any state. “State and federal policies provide something all business people need: market certainty,” Preskill said.

Utilities are also driving growth.

While utilities employ just 0.3% of the Midwest’s clean energy workforce, company plans also send market signals to developers. Jonathan Roberts, vice president of development for national solar developer Soltage, said emission-reduction goals and long-term plans are driving interest among independent power producers. This is especially true in Michigan and Indiana where large utilities’ integrated resource plans are calling for a ramp-up in renewable energy.

Energy efficiency dominates the industry.

The energy efficiency sector remains the top clean energy employer in the Midwest at 71.5% of the industry, or 526,800 of 737,031 jobs. A quarter of those jobs are in high-efficiency and renewable heating and cooling systems.

Birkerts said the region’s universities, national laboratories, educated workforce and “deep industrial roots” set it up for future growth.

“The region is just fertile ground for energy innovation,” he said.

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Andy compiles the Midwest Energy News digest and was a journalism fellow for Midwest Energy News from 2014-2020. He is managing editor of MiBiz in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was formerly a reporter and editor at City Pulse, Lansing’s alternative newsweekly.