For Coal Workers, The Solar Future Is Bright


Workers in the coal industry can get jobs in solar, and there are many ways to pay for their retraining. Those are the key findings of a study, “Retraining Investment for U.S. Transition from Coal to Solar Photovoltaic Employment,” recently published in the journal Energy Economics.

The study noted that while coal plants across the nation are shutting down, solar installations are increasing; eventually, many of the workers from coal will be able to transition to solar.

The study also looked at different ways to pay for the retraining of these workers.

“What we set out to do was figure out if it was feasible and how expensive would it be,” said Joshua M. Pearce, Ph.D., associate professor at Michigan Technical University and co-author of the study. “It is remarkably feasible, and on the expense side, it turned out to be trivial.”

One of the goals of the study, which was co-authored by Edward P. Louie from the School of Public Policy at Oregon State University, was to dispel the idea that the rise of renewables is causing tens of thousands of coal workers to be laid off – and that they would end up without jobs or with low-paying, entry-level jobs.

“How many coal workers are there really?” Pearce asked. “It turns out, solar easily can absorb the entire coal industry, and it wasn’t just that every coal worker will get the lousiest job, like putting a box on the truck.”

In fact, he said, some workers could see salary increases.

The study found several factors that presented some good news. First, using figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Energy Information Administration and previous studies, the authors estimated that coal mining and coal-fired power plants currently employ approximately 150,000 people in the U.S. However, that number is declining because young workers are not going into the coal business.

“When solar industry representatives show up at a job fair, there are students all around those booths,” Pearce said. “We have a master’s program specifically geared toward power production, and the vast majority of students are interested in renewables.”

Because the coal industry has not been attracting new workers, current workers can be moved to newer plants as the older plants are retired. Also, according to the report, the average age of current coal-fired power plant workers is 48. In turn, some workers will not seek new jobs – or retraining – in the next few years as the coal plants close.

Many of the power plants will retire at the same time the workers retire: The study noted that more than half the coal-fired power in the U.S. comes from plants built before 1975, and the average age at which power plants retire is 57 years. Thus, half of the power plants will reach retirement age by 2030.

Another positive factor is that many of the workers in coal-related jobs will not necessarily need training for a new field. Workers who have non-coal-specific positions, such as secretaries and marketing professionals, will likely not have to be retrained for similar jobs in solar. Some workers, such as industrial engineers and quality assurance professionals, will be able to transfer their skills to solar (with some retraining). Other workers could retrain for jobs in areas such as sales, installations or inspections.

The training costs would vary widely: For example, it would cost $4,295 to train an electrician to earn various certificates to work in residential solar installations. It would cost somewhere between $9,213 and $11,418 to earn various certificates and licenses to become a solar PV technician for commercial or utility installations.

The authors examined various scenarios, and in the best-case scenario – if it is assumed that only coal-specific jobs require retraining – an investment of $180 million would be needed in the event of the complete elimination of the coal industry. In the worst-case scenario, the high estimate for this retraining cost is expanded to $1.87 billion.

To cover these costs, the authors considered four policy scenarios: employees pay for their own retraining, the coal industry pays for their employee retraining, programs are established in individual states to provide this training and the U.S. federal government funds the coal-to-solar transition. Even if the funding were completely subsidized by the federal government, the figures, ranging from $180 million to $1.87 billion, would amount to only 0.0052% and 0.0543% of the U.S. federal budget, respectively, according to the study.

Pearce said critics of the study noted that workers in coal states such as West Virginia would have to leave their communities to get new jobs. In general, though, relocating is common in every field – and has been for decades.

“You have the option to move to make a higher salary,” he said. “You do that for your career.”

Besides, he explained, states that want to keep workers have successfully implemented everything from net metering to solar training funds to solar business incentives.

“You wouldn’t have to go full California on it,” he said. “But you can get all the benefits of solar jobs and money.”

The study also pointed to schools and programs that train workers. Solar Energy International (SEI), based in Paonia, Colo., offers a technical training program. Solar Ready Colorado, an effort through SEI with support from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment and other partners, provides training to people interested in working in solar.

Christopher J. Turek, director of marketing and alumni relations for SEI, said SEI trains military veterans, women, minorities and other underserved groups and recently launched a program to train coal workers and oil and gas workers.

“We wanted to create an extra effort for people with transferable skills, with the downturn in other energy sectors,” he said. “Our neighbors here in western Colorado, the coal miners and natural gas workers, are getting hit extra hard with job losses.”

SEI offers everything from entry-level training to training for lead technical designers, Turek added.

“As our society gets energy from one source to another,” he said, “there needs to be a pool of the workforce that can get these jobs.”

The full study can be found here.

Nora Caley is a Denver-based freelance writer. 

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