Patricia Fahy, a New York State legislator, celebrated when a new development project for the Port of Albany — the country’s first assembly plant dedicated to building offshore wind towers — was approved in January.
“I was doing cartwheels,” said Ms. Fahy, who represents the area.
Before long, however, she was caught in a political bind.
A powerful union informed her that most of the equipment for New York’s big investment in offshore windmills would not be built by American workers but would come from abroad. Yet when Ms. Fahy proposed legislation to press developers to use locally made parts, she met opposition from environmentalists and wind industry officials. “They were like, ‘Oh, God, don’t cause us any problems,’” she recalled.
Since President Biden’s election, Democratic politicians have extolled the win-win allure of the transition from fossil fuels, saying it can help avert a looming climate crisis while putting millions to work. “For too long we’ve failed to use the most important word when it comes to meeting the climate crisis: jobs, jobs, jobs,” Mr. Biden said in an address to Congress last month.
final approval of the nation’s first large-scale offshore wind project on Tuesday, called it an important step to “create good-paying union jobs while combating climate change.”
But there is a tension between the goals of industrial workers and those of environmentalists — groups that Democrats count as politically crucial. The greater the emphasis on domestic manufacturing, the more expensive renewable energy will be, at least initially, and the longer it could take to meet renewable-energy targets.
That tension could become apparent as the White House fleshes out its climate agenda.
“It’s a classic trade-off,” said Anne Reynolds, who heads the Alliance for Clean Energy New York, a coalition of environmental and industry groups. “It would be better if we manufactured more solar panels in the U.S. But other countries invested public money for a decade. That’s why it’s cheaper to build them there.”
There is some data to support the contention that climate goals can create jobs. The consulting firm Wood Mackenzie expects tens of thousands of new jobs per year later this decade just in offshore wind, an industry that barely exists in the United States today.
And labor unions — even those whose members are most threatened by the shift to green energy, like mineworkers — increasingly accept this logic. In recent years, many unions have joined forces with supporters of renewable energy to create groups with names like the BlueGreen Alliance that press for ambitious jobs and climate legislation, in the vein of the $2.3 trillion proposal that Mr. Biden is calling the American Jobs Plan.
recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and BloombergNEF, an energy research group.
Batteries for electric vehicles, their most valuable component, follow a similar pattern, the report found. And there is virtually no domestic supply chain specifically for offshore wind, an industry that Mr. Biden hopes to see grow from roughly a half-dozen turbines in the water today to thousands over the next decade. That supply chain is largely in Europe.
Many proponents of a greener economy say that importing equipment is not a problem but a benefit — and that insisting on domestic production could raise the price of renewable energy and slow the transition from fossil fuels.
“It is valuable to have flexible global supply chains that let us move fast,” said Craig Cornelius, who once managed the Energy Department’s solar program and is now chief executive of Clearway Energy Group, which develops solar and wind projects.
Those emphasizing speed over sourcing argue that most of the jobs in renewable energy will be in the construction of solar and wind plants, not making equipment, because the manufacturing is increasingly automated.
But labor groups worry that construction and installation jobs will be low paying and temporary. They say only manufacturing has traditionally offered higher pay and benefits and can sustain a work force for years.
Partisans of manufacturing also point out that it often leads to jobs in new industries. Researchers have shown that the migration of consumer electronics to Asia in the 1960s and ’70s helped those countries become hubs for future technologies, like advanced batteries.