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March 31, 2014

Sierra & Tierra: The Dirty Energy Industry Looks Green with Envy

By Javier Sierra  

We are in the midst of an epidemic of devastating oil and coal spills. In recent weeks, we have witnessed oil spills in the Mississippi River, on the Galveston, TX, coast and in Lake Michigan, among others. We have also seen terrible toxic coal spills in the Dan River, NC, and the Elk River, WV. It will take hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up these disasters.

And they claim dirty energy is cheap!

On the other hand, when we have a sun spill, we call it a nice day. And that is precisely what I want to talk to you about today, the huge economic and environmental benefits that clean energy brings to Latino workers and the whole country.

“Creating all this energy that is much needed at this time, without burning our fossil fuels and without damaging our environment, to me is a win-win situation no matter how you see it,” says Alfonso Carmona-Jiménez, a Calexico electrician working in the installation of solar and wind projects in California’s Imperial Valley. “Finally we have started taking energy from the sun, and I hope we will continue this way after polluting the earth for so long.”


InstallingSolar_600x600Workers installing solar panels in California (Photo Sierra Club)

Alfonso and thousands of other Latino workers are benefitting from a historic clean energy bonanza taking place across the country, but especially in California. The Great Recession punished this part of the state with special harshness, leaving Alfonso and thousands of workers like him jobless.

“And now it’s a great relief that I don’t have to ask the government for anything and not having to worry about where the next paycheck will come from,” proudly says Alfonso, who is now working on a solar project for the State University of San Diego at Brawley.

Alfonso is benefitting from the clean energy professional trainings for unemployed workers that unions such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers are conducting in California and other parts of the country.

“The union is doing a great thing for all of us here,” says Alfonso. “They provide good jobs for us, they train us, they get us benefits and health insurance, they defend us when we have issues with employers.”

California is the nation’s solar energy leader and also a world leader on its own merits, recently beating two generating records in consecutive days. On March 7th, it generated 3.9 gigawatts (GW) of electricity, and on the following day, 4.1 GW, enough to power 3 million homes or 18 percent of the overall power demand.

California already boasts almost 1,700 solar companies that employ more than 47,000 workers, thousands of them Latinos. In 2013, it added 2.7 GW of solar power, and today it has 5.6 GW of installed energy, making it the world’s seventh solar power, if it were an independent country.

Also, this clean bounty does not punish the health of Californians, unlike coal or oil. Just ask Domingo Reyes, another Calexico electrician who works on solar projects and, like his 10-year-old son, suffers from asthma.

“Here in the Imperial Valley we have some of the worst air quality in the nation. Pollution worsens our asthma. But wind and solar power is helping to lower these pollution levels,” he says.

Indeed, this is a win-win situation, as Alfonso puts it. He proudly tells the story about his first job installing a wind turbine almost 300 feet tall: “My six-year-old really got a kick out of the photos of me working on the turbine, looking so small compared to the size of the turbine, and when I told him that was me, he said with his eyes wide open, ‘really?’”

The dirty energy industry would look at the photo green with envy.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC


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