Centeno’s life was never easy — she “grew up rough,” her mother told The WorldPost. She had her first child when she was a teenager. About three years ago, things got harder. Her husband was sent to prison on drug charges, leaving Centeno to support three children, two of them still in diapers, on her own. She took what work she could find — chambermaid, hospital janitor, house cleaner — never breaking $11 an hour. “I didn’t have any hope that I was going to have a good life,” she said.
Things started looking up six months ago when Centeno started as an apprentice with the ironworkers, at the encouragement of some relatives who belong to the union. The apprentice program lasts four years and involves both on-the-job training and classwork. The starting wage is $22, with regular raises and, after a few weeks on the job, full benefits. When training is over, she’ll get her journeyman’s card and can expect to make more than $40 an hour.
Things have been looking up for many Fresno ironworkers recently. When the recession hit in 2008, jobs around here started drying up. The union’s membership dwindled for about five years before a reprieve came in 2013 in the form of solar energy. “Solar saved our bacon,” one veteran ironworker told me.
The union got involved in solar projects that had started popping up across the valley, fueled by federal and state tax incentives and California’s climate policies. Not long after solar took off, workers broke ground on the high-speed rail line, which is funded in part by revenue from California’s carbon cap-and-trade program and will run from San Francisco to Los Angeles and beyond. Local 155 has signed on to some 45 solar projects in the past few years, ranging from the 200-megawatt Wright Solar Park in Merced County to the 23-megawatt Cottonwood Solar project in Kings County. The union is currently training 260 apprentices — 200 more than usual.
The apprenticeship is a good deal, Centeno says, but it’s demanding, especially for a single parent. She’s had to spend nights away from her kids when she worked on far-off locations. Sometimes, she said, she comes home from work so stiff that she walks like a penguin. Sexism is common, she told me, so in addition to learning to weld and walk on beams, she had to learn to shut it down with swagger. “You show up at the site, and they say, ‘Oh, you’re a girl.’” Her response: “No, I’m an ironworker.”
For the first time in her life though, Centeno sees a path to a good life. And she doesn’t have to worry about money. “This shirt is new,” she said, pinching the fabric of a black hoodie. “This necklace is new.” She lifts its charm — “love” is spelled out in crystals. She points to her two sons, aged three and four, both with matching buzz cuts, brown overalls and high-tops. “My boys are wearing Carhartts. They’re wearing Jordans. I never had any of this before. It changed my life.”
Fresno sits in the center of the San Joaquin Valley, a basin bounded by the California coast ranges on the west and the towering Sierra Nevada Mountains to the east. The valley, which runs down the middle of the state from Sacramento almost all the way to Los Angeles, embodies many of the challenges that climate change and attempts to address it may bring. It will get hotter and more arid. Farming will continue to suffer from the heat and dwindling water. Agriculture and oil, the valley’s two main economic engines, are big emitters that will face increased regulations and costs in the coming years. If jobs are lost, it will be a further blow to a region that’s already poorer than much of the rest of the state.
Since President Donald Trump took office, his administration has been busy dismantling climate and environmental regulations, arguing that they’re job killers. The administration has declared an end to the “war on coal,” announced plans to withdraw from the Paris climate accord and is working to rescind former President Barack Obama’s signature piece of climate legislation, the Clean Power Plan.
Here in California, the opposite is happening. The state has some of the most ambitious climate policies and environmental regulations in the country. California plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels over the next 13 years and eventually to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
One way it will hit these targets is by increasing the amount of electricity that comes from renewable sources. The state mandates that half of its electricity must come from renewables by 2030; it’s likely that target will be strengthened in the next legislative session to 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2045, which would include renewables, nuclear, large-scale hydropower, and gas plants that capture all emissions.
The policies crafted in Sacramento are being put in action in places like Fresno and the rest of the San Joaquin Valley, which has become the epicenter of California’s renewable energy industry. Around a third of the state’s renewable energy comes from the valley. Between 2002 and 2015, the construction of renewable energy infrastructure created at least 88,000 jobs in the San Joaquin Valley, according to Betony Jones, who was the director of the green economy program at the University of California at Berkeley Labor Center until late last year. About 90 percent of those jobs were created between 2012 and 2015.
So far, Trump’s anti-climate agenda has only made California bolder. Gov. Jerry Brown, along with leaders from other states and many businesses and cities, has vowed to uphold the goals of the Paris accord if the federal government won’t do so. The state’s climate goals get more ambitious at each legislative session.
Kern County, at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, is the second-largest oil-producing county in the continental United States. It’s a red county that arguably has more in common economically, culturally and politically with America’s conservative heartland than its electric car-driving neighbors in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Hillary Clinton might’ve won California by more than 28 percentage points, but Trump beat her in Kern.
For years, Kern County’s been known for oil and agriculture. But recently, it’s also emerged as ground zero in California’s renewable energy transition. Kern produced more than a quarter of the state’s renewable energy last year, nearly three times as much as any other county.
In October, Chevron announced a “new organizational model” for its oil drilling operations in the area. Twenty-six percent of its workforce would be laid off. It was the latest in a series of cuts caused by low oil prices. Phillip Billington, an electrician who worked for almost a decade in oil operations around Bakersfield, told me he got sick of laying people off, and he recalled feeling disposable himself. “When you’re out in the oilfields, you’re pretty much a number,” he said. “I was employee number 1308, and that’s how they you treat you.”
An acquaintance suggested he go to the electrical workers’ union and ask about solar projects. He resisted at first. The unions were corrupt and lazy, the supervisors on his last job had told him. But eventually he went, and he liked what he heard about stability and opportunities to keep learning. The union helped him get a job with an independent company, A-C Electric. Before long, he was running the company’s solar division — installing panels on top of factories and car dealerships and building parking structures shaded by solar panels.
Billington wasn’t the only oil industry worker who turned to the union when barrel prices fell. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 428 has put about 200 displaced oil workers to work over the last few years, mostly in solar. Billington started recruiting his buddies from the oil industry, offering them jobs on his team. At first, his friend Jonathan Sanchez was a tough sell. Sanchez had watched with dismay as crude fell and the work dried up. “They start out saying, everything’s fine. We’re going to get through this,” he told The WorldPost. “Then, slowly but surely, your friends start disappearing.”
Sanchez wasn’t sure he wanted to leave what he knew. “I was leery,” he said. “It took me a long time to cross that line.” Out in the oilfields, people talked about solar like it was a passing fad. It was too expensive, no one was going to adopt it, it’s oil that runs the world.
But Sanchez couldn’t help but notice that he was starting to see solar everywhere he looked. Rooftop solar salespeople had been calling his house with deals on installation. He’d be driving to the coast on vacation and pass solar farm after solar farm. He started to feel like the shift from oil to solar was inevitable. Last year, he took the leap. So far, no regrets. He’s making good money and already got a promotion. “It’s clear that we’re going the solar route,” he said. “So why not learn what you can now to get ahead of the game and not be one of these guys that are chasing the bus, trying to jump on?”
Last year, researchers at Berkeley published a report that weighed the costs and benefits of the state’s major climate policies and their impact specifically in the San Joaquin Valley. The researchers accounted for positive factors like job creation and investment as well as negatives like the cost for companies to comply with new regulations and potential job losses in vulnerable sectors like the oil industry. They concluded that California’s major climate policies and programs have been an “economic boon” to the region, resulting in a net gain of more than $13 billion and more than 37,000 jobs.
This is in line with other recently published research that found that California has cut its per-capita emissions by 12 percent since 2006. During that same time, the state economy has grown almost twice as fast as the national average. Today, clean energy employs many more people than fossil fuels do; in California, there are 8.5 jobs in renewables for each one in fossil fuels.
Most of the jobs created by California’s climate policies are in the construction industries. Ironworkers are building the high-speed rail lines and the structures that will hold solar panels, and electricians are supervising panel installation and connecting them to the grid. Many of the large projects are governed by labor agreements that set standards for wages, local hiring and unionized workers. These are “family-supporting” jobs, said Jones, one of the authors of the Berkeley report. That’s not because clean energy jobs are inherently well-paid; it’s a testament to the strength and political influence of organized labor in California.
That clout can cut both ways. In the state’s last legislative session, union opposition to parts of a bill mandating 100 percent clean energy statewide by 2045 helped postpone a decision, at least until the legislature’s new session, which began in early January. And not surprisingly, some contractors and developers that don’t use union labor have balked at the agreements, arguing they drive up costs. They argue that unions will sometimes retaliate against developers that don’t play ball by delaying or even torpedoing projects based on environmental concerns.
Charles Kolstad, an environmental economist at Stanford who was a convening lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told me many of the state’s key climate policies are designed to get stricter over the next 10 years, so it’s hard to say what their ultimate economic impact will be. He advised state regulators on the cap-and-trade program, and he warns against “wishful thinking” and overselling the positive effects these policies will have on the economy.
Cutting emissions while not hindering the economy is plenty to ask, Kolstad said. But so far, he continued, there are no signs that the economy has been hurt. “This is not environmental protection at any cost. This is showing how you can thread the needle between reducing emissions and keeping an active, vibrant economy.”
This business-friendly approach has drawn criticism from some environmental justice groups who say cap-and-trade lets polluters avoid cleaning up their operations by buying carbon credits, which doesn’t do enough to protect the often disadvantaged communities that bear the brunt of the contamination from refineries and other polluters. Brown has also been criticized for his failure to ban fracking. Lawmakers have tried to address these issues, at least to some extent, by passing laws that mandate that a certain proportion of the funds raised by cap-and-trade go to communities that suffer disproportionately from pollution and poverty.
Lorelei Oviatt, Kern County’s director of planning, has helped streamline the permitting process to draw more investment in the region’s renewables sector. But she chafes at some of the rhetoric she hears from urban lawmakers and activists who have pressed for ever-stricter rules. She told me that many of these policies, like the push for an entirely carbon-free electrical grid by 2045, are put forth without a clear plan for the road ahead.
California is way better at generating clean power than storing it, Oviatt pointed out. And though the state is trying to incentivize battery improvements, the grid will need natural gas in the meantime. Plus, Californians are driving more than ever, but fewer than 1 percent of the cars on the road are zero-emission vehicles.
Oviatt also thinks much of the conversation around climate change “demonizes” the oil industry, and she worries the push to “keep it in the ground” would destroy jobs and a good chunk of the revenue that funds the county’s schools, libraries and other services. “The idea that you can just instantaneously move into this paradise ignores reality,” she said.
Jones agrees that the transition to a cleaner economy needs to be handled with care. “We have to do something about climate change, but we have to do it wisely and in a way that’s not going to make the region more vulnerable.” Many supporters of California’s climate policies say they hold the promise of not just mitigating climate change but also of righting some historic wrongs.
This “just transition,” as it’s sometimes called, would prioritize the needs of communities that have disproportionately suffered from pollution and disinvestment. Fresno, for example, has poor air quality and a high poverty rate. It is about to get $70 million in cap-and-trade revenue that it will use to finance projects to reduce emissions and bolster the economy, such as a new community college campus and training programs for careers in the renewables industry.
Jones notes that the state’s climate policies could help build a fairer economy. For example, the fossil fuels industry is capital intensive but not as labor intensive as the construction industry. So if jobs in oil and gas are replaced by more opportunities building solar farms, affordable housing near public transit and high-speed rail lines, the potential economic impact in local communities is multiplied. It’s not about picking winners and losers, she said. “It is about redistributing money in a way that prepares us for a more low-carbon future.”
On a Friday morning in October, a restless line of job seekers snaked across the parking lot of a municipal building about 10 miles south of Bakersfield. The air was the color of weak coffee with cream, hazy with smog from farm fields, highways and oil wells. Across the road, farmworkers with bandanas on their faces moved through a fuzz of green carrot tops. Further off, plopped seemingly at random amid vineyards and parks and massed in a giant herd just north of the city, oil derricks nodded methodically, like giant grazing birds.
A job fair was starting. Brian Holt, an electrician with black hair and a bouncer’s build, opened the doors and brought groups of 16 people in at a time. He handed out applications and gave a quick spiel: he was hiring up to 90 people to install solar panels at a couple of large solar farms. Holt works for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 428, the same union local that helped Phillip Billington find work when he left the oil industry.
Holt told the men and women who had gathered there that morning that they would be out in the elements and it was physical work. But there were only two formal requirements, he said: a clean drug test and a pair of sturdy boots. Starting pay: $17.19 an hour.
In line at the job fair, Gabriel Hernandez, a soft-spoken 25-year-old wearing a screen-printed black T-shirt, said he’s gotten two solar gigs and is hoping this will be his third. At first, the money was the draw — right now he’s making only $13 an hour working as a temp running a machine that presses almond milk. But he also likes the idea that he’s helping clean up the air, and he applied for an apprenticeship with the ironworkers union. He said he hopes to see more renewables built near Bakersfield. “I just can’t see any downside to it,” he said.
When I asked Holt if California’s climate policies were killing jobs, his response was immediate: “Quite the opposite.” In fact, the union has added more than 250 members over the last three years thanks to solar work. During that time, its apprenticeship program has grown from 83 to 130 trainees, and it’s hired another 600 or so people to work as solar panel installers, which is often a pathway to becoming an apprentice.
Holt waited while people filled out applications, shaking a few hands. Then he swept the applications into a pile, applied a quick squirt of hand sanitizer and opened the door for the next group. By the end of the day, about 350 people had applied for jobs.
This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.