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Labor Day: New Deal Roots and Clean Energy Offshoots


The Great Depression witnessed the highest unemployment rate this country has ever known. A quarter of the American workforce was jobless at its height in 1932. The next year, the newly-elected President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, signed into law legislation that put the country on the road to recovery.

However, long before the New-Deal era government stimulus programs were enacted – the situation across the country was grim.

The story of my grandfather, for whom I am named, is just one case in point from that era. 

On a cold December day in 1931, J.W. Arwood, President of the Central Labor Union in Hutchinson, Kansas, led an “Army of Unemployed” to City Hall, crowding into the council chambers and overflowing into the street. 

The union men rallied to demand work for the city’s unemployed citizens who had no way to support their families that winter. My grandfather urged the city fathers to provide funding for infrastructure improvements that would provide much needed work for the unemployed.

He argued that a man paying $200 in annual taxes would pay just six cents more a year if government funding was approved to provide critical infrastructure improvements that would employ 600 men.

The funding measure was approved, and within a day, the city was working 100 men. Two days later, a total of 600 men were put to work.

Today, more than 80 years later, the projects implemented as a result of those funds and the subsequent federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) stimulus program -- a city park, a flood-control canal and the state fair grandstand -- are revered community assets. 


On Labor Day 2008, I joined a bi-partisan group of 14 state energy officials from across the country to begin crafting an energy proposal for the next President’s consideration.

It was not a “blue-state” plan, nor was it a “red-state” plan.  It was an American plan that not only invested in public projects – but, as the economic conditions worsened all over the country – would provide a solid foundation for a new energy economy. 

This bi-partisan group represented the governor-appointed energy directors from states such as Massachusetts, Arizona, West Virginia and Kentucky.  A month after the election, we met in the Forrestal Building in Washington D.C. with the Obama administration’s energy-transition team -- to present the plan.

The plan called for a home energy tax-credit to stimulate homeowners to make their homes more energy-efficient. It requested a multi-year extension for renewable energy tax credits to encourage clean energy production. The proposal called for increased funding to weatherize low-income homes, and to help states invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy projects in public buildings. It even proposed rebates for energy efficient appliances, and funding for an Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program that would direct funding for energy projects to cities, towns and counties all across the country.

A month after President Obama’s inauguration, this proposal was rolled into the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), and signed into law. ARRA was the Great Recession's equivalent of the Depression's WPA stimulus plan for restarting the U.S. economy. And, like the WPA projects, the ARRA energy investments have become valuable community assets that not only provided employment during a time of need -- but are paying dividends today in terms of jobs, energy-cost savings, and greenhouse gas reductions. 

Projects like a 98 kW photovoltaic-covered parking canopy at Surprise City Hall. Or, the PV powered streetlights in a low-income neighborhood in Sierra Vista.  A 50 kW PV system supplying City Hall in Bullhead City with clean energy also resulted from ARRA funding. The comprehensive energy retrofits ARRA funded on five rural Cochise County library branches – created jobs and new learning opportunities for southeastern Arizona residents. In northwestern Arizona, the Lake Havasu community benefited from the installation of 85 energy efficient air conditioning units on 13 municipal buildings. And what’s more, ARRA required all equipment be American-made – right down to the nuts and bolts.  

There is a similar story for every single community in Arizona. Unfortunately, not very many people know about these projects.  No identifying marker commemorates these projects, or the jobs they created. In some cases, even the people working on these projects were unaware they were employed as a result of stimulus funding --

...Like the Arizona rancher that was unaware his matching grant for a solar-powered water pump was stimulus funded. It is a common-theme heard across the country. The librarian in Wells, Nevada was proud of the library’s new windows and energy efficient lighting – but oblivious to the fact they came about because of ARRA.

...Or, the two young men I encountered installing new energy-efficient lights in the Rock Springs, Wyoming city hall back in 2010 – completely unaware that their employment was because of an ARRA grant. 

The stimulus invested in our nation’s infrastructure, our public buildings, our workers, and our future. Between 2009 and 2012, ARRA saved or created an average of 1.6 million jobs a year. But, it is a success story that has been muted because of the toxic politics that taints anything coming out of our nation’s capital.

Hopefully, when we celebrate the centennial of FDR’s Work Progress Administration in 20 years – we will also celebrate the ARRA successes – like the 280 MW Solana Solar Generating Station near Gila Bend that was built because of an ARRA loan guarantee.   

Jim Arwood
Communications Director
Arizona Solar Center

Question: What ARRA energy projects are you aware of in your community?

Point of Personal Privilege
Red and Blue Equals Green

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