As our country’ shifts inevitably to clean energy sources, jobs are not being lost so much as shifting. From Wyoming to West Virginia, former fossil fuel industry workers are retraining for jobs in the green energy sector, and gradually embracing a new way of life.
In days past, coal towns were thriving hubs of commerce, progress, and high pay. But their buildings and main streets, once so grand, have slowly deteriorated. Coal, which not so long ago powered the lion’s share of the U.S. grid, is now down to running about a third of it. Layoffs have pressed thousands of breadwinners out of the only work they’ve known.
New job sectors are emerging, though. The question is whether the green energy sector can replace the financial sustenance formerly offered to rural communities by the the fossil-fuel energy sectors. Solar is growing. Yet can its job market, beset as it has been by political tensions, open itself to those who have lost the most in the shift to renewable power? We have good reason for optimism.
Even where renewable energy is an incomplete answer for former fossil fuel industry workers, coal itself can’t replicate what it once offered. Production was on the upswing for almost a century, but around 2007, coal jobs plummeted. And coal will not make a serious comeback, even if its present stalwarts manage to foster a few localized revivals.
The waning of coal, though, is not a bad thing. Here, it is important for us to pause and reflect on why it’s not a bad thing.
Why We Shouldn’t Try to Revive Coal and Oil
The online Carbon Tracker initiative, an independent financial think tank, set out to bring transparency to the volume of embedded carbon in the stock market. Its creators have urged the business community to stop thinking about known fossil fuel reserves as lucrative resources waiting to be unearthed. We must now understand them as “stranded assets” if we are to have a chance of holding the carbon level in Earth’s atmosphere from pushing average temperatures 2°C higher than they were in pre-industrial times. (Beyond a 2°C rise, we’ll see critically serious risks of a full-blown, nonlinear tipping dynamic — runaway climate change.)
Even a highly risky ceiling of 3°C would substantially limit our exploitation of known fossil fuel reserves.
By 2075, as the International Energy Agency has said, greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector will need to be zero. We must ramp up investments in clean energy quickly, the IEA has urged. If we instead continue to extract fossil fuels from the ground, we fortify our carbon-intensive infrastructure, and we do so at our peril.
A low-carbon economy is indispensable to avoid worsening climate disruption and hastening its side effects: coastal erosion, harsher storms, ocean acidification, and loss of ice sheets — sources of water and life. All these reasons cannot be emphasized enough. Trying to save jobs by reviving fossil fuels is the environmental equivalent of being penny-wise and pound-foolish.
Yes, West Virginia: There Is Real Hope for Economically Frustrated Communities
Solar Holler, a West Virginia nonprofit, and a company named Coalfield Development, are putting their resources together to train a new population of PV panel installers. Trainees are eligible to enter into a 30-month term as apprentices. Apprentices get hands-on practice installing panels, and they learn to feel at ease on a roof. That’s a prerequisite to acquiring all the skills needed for installation work, which pays a national average of $26 per hour.
An article in the New York Times quotes West Virginians who are drawn to the opportunity because it promises useful knowledge — using sun-catching technology to make electricity is a life skill — and because they are interested in the environmental ramifications.
In this way, some solar jobs are in fact revitalizing the same towns and people formerly sustained by the coal mines. A background in the fossil fuel sector equips a worker with important safety and teamwork skills that suit new work with solar installations. Granted, solar salaries do not match the pay offered in many past coal mining and oil rig jobs. But the tradeoff is better security and employability in a now-flourishing job market.
Today’s solar energy industry employs some 50,000 more people than mining and coal-powered electricity does, given the workforce of 200,000+ people engaged in the U.S. solar economy. And according to the Harvard Business Review, U.S. solar employs new workers at twelve times the rate of businesses in general.
A Commitment to Education
According to one study by carried out by Associate Professor Joshua M. Pearce and researchers at Michigan Technical University, published in Energy Economics, the national solar sector is well positioned to absorb all job losses expected in coal country through the coming years. This good news is contingent on a commitment to accessible education from the people who influence a variety of funding sources.
The study examined potential costs of retraining workers for shifts from coal to the solar industry. They included people in every role, from cleaners to miners to engineers. They priced the necessary education, which would involve a course for some and a four-year degree for others, somewhere between $180 million and $1.8 billion.
If energy companies themselves won’t foot the bill, it’s not implausible that state governors, already known for taking the lead on climate, could champion coal-to-solar retraining.
Other growth industries are in need of workers too, and might hire displaced energy-sector employees if the educational opportunities are there to match them up. Annually, more than half a million U.S. technology careers are waiting to be filled, so jobs are outsourced internationally that could be done here if more U.S. residents had the skills to apply. Some tech industry players are presenting opportunities to former coal employees who wish to learn to code — and then hiring them. Taking a company up on such an offer is a smart and agile decision for long-time energy workers who find themselves displaced.
Likewise, young employees in the coal sector, as Joshua Pearce wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “should consider retraining for a job in solar now.”
Diane Cardwell, What’s Up in Coal Country: Alternative-Energy Jobs – New York Times (Sep. 2017):
Joshua M. Pearce, What If All U.S. Coal Workers Were Retrained to Work in Solar? – Harvard Business Review (Aug. 2016):
Michael Reilly, Can We Really Retrain Coal Workers for Jobs in Solar? MIT Technology Review (Aug. 2016):
Cassady Rosenblum, Hillbillies Who Code – The Guardian (Apr. 2017):
Fiona Harvey, World on Track for 3C of Warming Under Current Global Climate Pledges, Warns UN – The Guardian (Nov. 2016):
International Energy Agency: