Our friends at Gizmodo have released a report defining how unemployed and threatened coal miners can find new futures in green energy. We have summarized their findings and highlighted key points below. Let us know what you think about the plan to help an industry currently in flux.
Green energy launched into public consciousness over the past decade, mounting awareness with “going green” campaigns and education. However, with growing attention has also come a growing number of detractors, especially from those within and affected by the coal industry.
The primary criticism from the coal industry and its supporters is the threat green energy imposes on the job market. While clean energy jobs have seen substantial increases in recent years, specifically 15,000 new wind industry jobs, and 50,000 new solar industry jobs last year alone, the coal industry hit new lows in 2016.
In states like West Virginia, Kentucky, and Montana, layoffs, and mine shutdowns have spurred many to disavow global warming and discredit clean energy as a result. The so-called “War on Coal” continues to be a hindrance toward promoting renewable energy reliance throughout the United States.
Green energy is the future. It will ensure the longevity of our planet and our infrastructure. However, it owes a debt to the coal industry which has and continues to power homes and businesses where green energy is less readily available. So, can clean energy jobs be offered to out-of-work miners?
Most everyone can agree that energy is not a political issue, but an economic one. All indicators show that the green energy boom will continue, clean energy job rates will make new gains, and, despite deregulation by the Trump administration, businesses looking for cost cutting measures will be the ultimate influencers. But the boom currently cannot reach everyone everywhere.
The first challenge is geography. Solar and wind are the most cost competitive options available on the market. However, these types of energy generation are obviously only found in states with abundant sunlight and breezes. California makes up 40% of all solar jobs, Texas generated 13% of its energy from wind in 2016, and Iowa, Kansas, and South Dakota see potential with nearly 25% of their respective energy production drawn from wind.
What about Wyoming, West Virginia, and Kentucky? According to Philip Jordan, principal researcher for BW Research Partnership and co-author of the 2016 Solar Jobs Census, “It’s a mix of market drivers. People generally won’t care about renewables unless they’re provably better than how they’re already getting their electricity.” In other words, renewable resources and clean energy incentives are needed for a state to transition to green energy.
A state like West Virginia which generates 96% of its electricity from coal and offers 11 clean energy incentives is not likely to see the same job growth rate that California saw in 2016. 24,000 jobs were created as a result of 264 total clean energy incentives, including subsidies for solar panels and utilities, making renewable energy more affordable than fossil fuels.
While these Midwestern and Eastern states may lack the resources to rely on wind or natural gas, solar energy production could help put workers back in jobs. While solar energy would be unable to fuel states throughout the heartland, additional incentives in these areas could help to spur additional solar plants, easing the burdens of unemployment.
This brings up another issue with integrating coal workers into renewable energy jobs – skill. If solar is the best option for Midwestern states looking to create jobs, do miners have the skill set to succeed? Half of all jobs in the solar industry are installation based as well as a third of all wind jobs. Installation would be the best match for miners based on their safety skills and electrical knowledge. A hiccup arises, according to project manager and marketing director for Solar Energy International (SEI) Chris Turek, in that solar training programs are not designed specifically for miners.
The reason being to mix coal miners with different personalities and belief systems within green energy before getting to work. On top of that, SEI recommends two to three courses for new applicants, coming in at roughly $2,000. This becomes an unlikely option for out-of-work individuals struggling to make end meets or even currently employed workers navigating full-time jobs, family life, and now training courses.
Skills such as prospecting sites for panels, designing, and installing them can often be learned on-the-job, but leave these workers without the potential to grow within the industry. One of the highlighted offers of changing jobs from mining to renewable energy is the option to excel and build a more lucrative career. So, if the recommended training can guarantee workers a chance at career growth, who pays and makes this a reality?
The obvious answer would be the state also eager to put their people back to work. Joshua Pearce, a Materials Science and Engineering professor at Michigan Technological University, estimated retraining coal workers for the solar industry based on SEI standards would cost the most coal-dependent states anywhere between $120 million and $1.1 billion.
Pearce provides, “At the federal level, there’s definitely some animosity to new types of energy production.” The most recent Trump budget proposes cuts to the agencies responsible for clean energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy.
However, let’s consider the source of the funding. While energy related departments are being gutted, the primary department funding retraining opportunities is the Department of Labor, including the Hiring Our Miners Everyday initiative started under the Obama Administration. Further signs that government or state governments would be open to this option is the number of states remaining committed to the Paris Agreement and standing in open opposition to the Trump administration.
This represents momentum that is unlikely to waver moving forward. American companies, a driving factor behind green energy, have already developed training programs in coal country. Chinese manufacturer Goldwind is looking to use ex-miners’ electrical knowledge as wind technicians. And Quick Mount, a solar panel installation company, is offering workshops throughout West Virginia in cooperation with SEI.
A combination of recognizing which parts of renewable energy are best suited toward coal miners, which skills are transferable, and how to efficiently and cost effectively train these individuals can provide employed and most importantly unemployed coal miners with the opportunity to transfer into green energy. With states looking for ways to buoy their economies and assist their stranded workers, this is a solution that can yield results both locally and across the nation.