There's good news and bad news these days for the solar energy industry and its workers. The good news: Some enterprising companies are planning to reduce the cost of solar power by using robots to install and clean solar panels at large solar farms. The bad news: The humans who do those things today are likely to lose their jobs.
As the New York Times reports it, the solar industry may soon become the latest sector of the economy in which people lose jobs to 3-CPO and R2-D2 clones. The reason: Solar companies need to cut their production costs to compete with dirt-cheap natural gas. The panels themselves are about as inexpensive as they're going to get. The price of solar panels has dropped 70% since 1980, but the cost of building and installing them has gone up. That means the fastest way to cut costs is to cut people.
Van Jones, the green jobs czar in the White House at the start of the Obama Administration and still the nation's most articulate champion for green jobs, sees a different future -- an economy where at-risk youth become upwardly mobile youth, insulating homes, installing solar panels and staying gainfully employed in jobs that can't be exported to China.
That future has been materializing. Earlier this year, The Solar Foundation reported there were nearly 120,000 workers in the solar sector, with solar jobs growing faster than jobs in almost any other industry. Texas has more solar energy workers than ranchers, the Foundation said, and America has more solar workers than coal miners. Nearly half of these workers are solar panel installers - a job that pays about $18 an hour, slightly higher than the national median wage.
But while they can't be exported to China, solar jobs can be transferred to robots. The result is called "technological unemployment" and it's one of the reasons we're having a jobless economic recovery.
Marshall Brain, the author of Robotic Nation, estimates there will be 1.2 million industrial robots worldwide this year - one for every 5,000 people. Robots don't get tired or sick, and they rarely complain. They don't require Obamacare or company pensions. They don't take long lunches.
NBCNEWS.com says the jobs most likely to be taken over by robots in the years ahead include not only solar workers, but also pharmacists, lawyers, astronauts, soldiers, store clerks, babysitters, sports reporters, rescuers and people who drive cars.
This raises big questions about the price of progress. It also raises questions about the price of natural gas. The competition between solar power and natural gas should be less about cutting the cost of solar energy and more about raising the price of gas. The price we pay for natural gas - and for coal and oil, for that matter - doesn't come close to reflecting its true costs. Consider:
• Natural gas is a carbon fuel that contributes to global warming. Solar energy is not.
• Natural gas comes with a fuel cost. Solar energy does not.
• Natural gas production raises concerns about the impact of fracking on people and communities. Solar energy does not.
• Natural gas is delivered through about 300,000 miles of occasionally leaky pipelines in the United States today, with more planned to keep up with production. Solar power comes to us in 8 minutes and 20 seconds from 93 million miles away without wires or pipes.
• Gas is a finite fuel whose supply will run out sooner or later, either because we've used it all or because climate change dictates that we can't. Solar power comes from a source that will be around another 5 billion years.
One would think that the solar industry could compete very well with the oil and gas industry, even without robots. But we tolerate an energy marketplace skewed to the advantage of fossil fuels, rigged to ignore the real costs of energy, and fixated on first costs rather than life-cycle costs.
A little bit of attention from Congress could fix things so that solar energy and natural gas could compete in a fair fight and those blue-collar workers could keep their green jobs. A price on carbon would be a good start. But the current Congress is focused on more important things, like fiscal brinksmanship to impress the Tea Party.
Which is why of all the jobs that robots could take over from humans, Congress would be a much better place to start.