Renewable energy has been praised as the solution to so many of the world’s problems, being able to cut down greenhouse gas emissions, lower dependence on foreign fuels, and create new jobs and reshape the economy. While this is true, there exists the commonly overlooked casualty of the average coal worker, who, after spending a lifetime providing the public the fuel they need to light, heat, and cool their homes, is now or will soon be out of a job.
As we discussed in our past post on the growing employment of the solar and wind industries, more people are currently employed by the solar industry than the coal industry. While coal jobs have been rapidly declining for most of the past century, they have notably dropped recently, and the coal industry has lost 50,000 jobs in just five years.
It is important to note that the decline in coal is not just coming from the growth of renewables but also through a greater dependence on natural gas. In 2015, 33 percent of the total electricity generated in the United States came from natural gas, the same amount that was produced through coal. This is a massive change from the recent past, and can be attributed to the ease of acquiring natural gas through hydraulic fracturing. In addition, natural gas has been favored over coal because it emits less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the past 30 years, the total number of coal mining jobs has dropped from 180,000 to less than 60,000. This amount continues to dwindle as 200 of the then-523 coal power plants operating in the United States since 2010 have been shut down. In certain counties, such as the coal-country communities in Kentucky and West Virginia, the local economy is highly dependent on coal, and without these mines, there are no available jobs, forcing people to leave their homes.
For these areas, there is a proposed solution: introduce renewable energy jobs. This will allow emerging industries to fill the vacancies left by the fleeting coal economy. Since coal job numbers are decreasing as those for solar and wind continue to rise, this allows for displacement in the areas of the country that are hurt the most by it. There have been several plans proposed to make changes like this happen, such as the possibility of installing solar panels near Kentucky coal mines.
However, this approach has been criticized for not actually solving the problems of the blue color workers who have lost or will soon lose their jobs, since their skills are not transferable for work in the engineer-dominated solar market. About 35 percent of solar jobs require a bachelor’s degree or higher, and sought-for skills include experience in science and development, project planning, data analysis, and environmental stewardship.
Despite this, the Solar Foundation states that 54.7 percent of solar jobs are in installation, which would include at least some employment opportunities for former coal miners and workers. So, the creation of solar and wind jobs can only slightly offset the jobs lost in coal, and there aren’t many other employment options for these people. According to several macroeconomics researchers, the biggest job creators are young firms. However, cities built near coal mines have tended to develop larger establishments, and are thus less entrepreneurial.
Ultimately, a great deal of coal miners will undergo hardships in the near future, which will need to be addressed by legislative bodies. While renewable energy is the pathway to a clean future, it is important that people realize that it comes at a cost.
If you’d like to learn more about renewable energy, please refer to these past posts: