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Unions see greenbacks in 'green' future

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But thanks to the spike in oil prices and incentives like the recently extended Production Tax Credit for producers of renewable energy, some renewables are already competitive. Electricity generated from wind power is now competitive with that produced by natural gas. Wind-generated electricity has enjoyed a 27 percent growth rate in 2006 and is projected to grow at the same pace in 2007, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

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Already, it appears that the renewable energy sector has begun to deliver on its promise of new jobs. Spanish wind giant Gamesa Corp. is building a manufacturing plant in Edensburg, Pa., on the site of a closed steel mill. In all, Gamesa will bring 1,000 jobs to Pennsylvania, some 230 of them long-term manufacturing jobs.

Manufacturing giant Siemens, meanwhile, recently announced plans for a wind-turbine plant in Fort Madison, Iowa, that will employ some 250 people.

And last year, Seattle-based Imperium Renewables began building the largest US biodiesel facility near Aberdeen, Wash., an area hard hit by recent paper-mill closures. Biodiesel, made from vegetable oil, emits 78 percent less carbon dioxide than petroleum diesel. It has also recently become competitive with fossil fuels.

But because the cleanest energy is energy not used at all, the area most likely to see immediate growth will be energy efficiency – training people to inspect, insulate, and seal buildings so they waste less. By 2030, half of all buildings in the US will have been built after 2000, according to a study by the Brookings Institution. "That's a great opportunity," says Joel Rogers, a professor of law at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a cofounder of the Apollo Alliance. And it implies many jobs.

The Bush administration can take credit for pushing unions and the environmental movement together, says Julius Getman, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Although the interests of the two groups have long coincided, mutual distrust has often – although not always – kept the two movements apart.

Environmentalists looked down their noses at organized labor as "goons" more interested in protecting polluting industries than protecting the environment. Organized labor, meanwhile, viewed the environmental movement as elitist and more preoccupied with saving trees than in saving livelihoods. The Bush administration has helped change those attitudes.

"They have run roughshod over the environmentalists, who thought they were so powerful," Professor Getman says, "and they have done everything possible to diminish the power of unions."

Mr. Rifkin envisions not only more jobs but also a more equitable distribution of wealth due to the decentralization of energy production. He foresees a land dotted with community- or individually-owned generators and hydrogen fuel cells to store energy, all connected by a "smart grid," an Internet-like network managing the ebb and flow of electricity.

"It will require the creation of millions of jobs," he says, "and it will require the attention of civilization."