Green jobs in Pittsburgh and La Guajira

For a time, one of Pittsburgh’s last operating steel mills, which had once hummed with the work of 12,000 employees, stood as a rusting relic.

Today, the mill provides solar energy to high-tech enterprises. Its transformation, managed by a dozen people training on the fly for “green jobs,” fits into a growing trend in the United States. Climate issues are being addressed by workers who, a few years ago, toiled in more traditional industries. Today, 250,000 workers are employed by the solar-energy sector alone.

Pittsburgh’s Mill 19, as it is called, now houses the largest single-sloped solar array in the United States. It supplies all the electricity to Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics division and to Catalyst Connections, an employment-training organization. The 12-person crew that installed its solar panels was led by Tim Sippey, a man who remembers his father working in the same building when it was a steel mill.

Answering a crisis, creating jobs

The United States is working to reduce carbon — both at home and abroad — in ways that create good jobs and ensure healthy, livable communities. From Pittsburgh to places like La Guajira, in northern Colombia, the U.S. is working with private and public sectors to invest in green energy and jobs.

In Pittsburgh, Sippey wishes his steelworker dad was alive to see the results of his crew’s work. “In 21 years, it was the best job I ever ran,” he says.

People installing solar panels (© Scalo Solar Solutions)
The 12-person crew installing these solar panels had never done such work before they worked on Mill 19 in Pittsburgh. But by the end of the job, they were professionals, successfully placing 250 panels per day. (© Scalo Solar Solutions)

Despite some early nervousness, the crew finished ahead of schedule and, in the process, broke many fewer panels than Scalo Solar, the company that hired the crew, expects to be broken in a typical installation.

Wind makes waves in Colombia

Several thousand miles south in La Guajira, Colombia, a region is poised to transition to a green-jobs market similar in some ways to Pittsburgh’s.

Colombia relies on hydropower, using rivers’ currents, to provide 72% of the county’s electricity. (Most of the remainder of Colombia’s electricity supply comes from fossil fuels.)

Boy standing in desert (© Juancho Torres/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A Wayuu indigenous boy stands in the La Guajira desert in Colombia. Drought is becoming more common in the region. (© Juancho Torres/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The United Nations Development Programme says Colombia is at high risk of harm from climate change. After decades of status quo, frequent droughts are lowering river-water levels and making hydropower less reliable. By 2070, the annual temperature could increase between 2 and 4 degrees Celsius, and annual rainfall could drop by 30%.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has been spurred to help diversify Colombia’s green-energy options.

USAID has joined Colombia’s government and the private sector in the Scaling Up Renewable Energy (SURE) program, which supports the country’s first clean-energy auctions. These auctions allow prospective clean-energy companies — from wind to solar — to make business propositions and, once accepted, to start operations in Colombia.

Aerial view of wInd turbines (Courtesy of Vestas LATAM)
While wind energy supplies less than 1% of power in Colombia, more turbines — like these in La Guajira — are coming to the country. (Courtesy of Vestas LATAM)

In many cases when a foreign company wins an energy auction, it brings along its own trained employees from the company’s country of origin. USAID’s SURE program wants Colombian workers to be hired into green jobs and provides them with the skills they need for emerging clean-energy sectors.

Thomas Black, the renewable energy leader for USAID’s Colombia Mission, sees the auctions as creating a need for a new generation of green-collar workers. He says USAID has offered training to help shift technical know-how toward new, more sustainable forms of energy. “This renewable energy revolution … has been ignited,” Black says.

This article has been excerpted from a longer multimedia story called “From Blue to Green: Transforming Jobs Around the World.”