Mining layoffs could ‘easily’ turn into solar hires — study

Source: Dylan Brown, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, August 11, 2016

Laid-off coal miners should look no further than the solar industry for jobs that, on the whole, will come with a bigger paycheck, according to a new study in the journal Energy Economics.

The report, authored by Joshua Pearce of Michigan Technological University and Edward Louie of Oregon State University, argues that a relatively small investment in retraining — $180 million in the best-case scenario or $1.8 billion in the worst case — could turn the vast majority of coal industry workers into solar employees.

Pearce noted yesterday in the Harvard Business Review that coal miners face a particularly bleak future as the planet shifts away from fossil fuels generally. Pink slips are already sweeping coal country as natural gas has become the nation’s dominant fuel generating electricity and as investors, including major banks, take their money elsewhere (E&ENews PM, March 7).

“The writing on the wall for the coal industry is clear,” Pearce said. “Price pressure from natural gas, wind, and solar has been relentless. Increasingly stringent environmental regulations to curb pollution continue to raise the costs of coal, and public perception of the industry continues to fall.”

His advice to young coal workers: Retrain for a job in solar now.

The idea of turning out-of-work miners into clean-energy workers has reached the national stage as part of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s $30 billion plan to help hard-hit coal towns.

Even some Republicans are pushing legislation to free up funding for such retraining, but coal country has largely rebuked Clinton, clung to its traditional industry and rallied behind Republicans’ push to roll back Obama administration regulations (E&E Daily, April 12).

“Any opportunity for employment or training choices for those who are impacted is a good thing, but a person’s profession is an individual choice,” National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich said.

Popovich said America’s coal miners make $80,000 per year to do something that makes them proud. On the campaign trail, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump frequently mentions that miners in West Virginia, where he enjoys overwhelming support, told him they want to remain in the profession of their fathers and grandfathers (E&ENews PM, Aug. 2).

“Recent studies, politicians and commentators who have suggested alternate professions for coal miners — ignoring individuals’ personal preferences, career goals and living circumstances — are presumptuous at best,” Popovich said.

But solar is the one hiring, Pearce and Louie point out.

The Solar Foundation’s 2015 jobs census reported that solar industry employment has grown by 123 percent since 2010, adding nearly 115,000 living-wage jobs. By contrast, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which does not track solar employment, found only about 53,000 jobs in coal mining in June.

With the trend expected to continue, Pearce argued, the vast majority of coal miners can “easily” find full-time solar careers over the next 15 years.

Technical coal workers can also expect better pay in similar solar jobs, according to Pearce and Louie. The report used Bureau of Labor Statistics data to compare the salaries and required skill sets for coal industry positions — engineer, miner, etc. — with their closest equivalent in the solar industry.

“Most coal workers could not simply walk into a solar job; they would need some retraining,” Pearce wrote. “But … for some coal employees, the retraining would only amount to a short course or on-the-job training.”

For example, a coal operations engineer could quickly transition into a job as a solar manufacturing technician and expect a 10 percent salary increase, according to the report.

More advanced positions would require more education, but the report argues that annual pay in the solar industry would appeal to all education levels.

“However, managers and particularly executives would make less,” Pearce said.

Good pay in solar could make it worth it for former coal workers to pay for their own retraining or, as the report proposed, coal companies could pitch in as a way to care for their workers, improve their public perception or diversify their energy portfolios like some oil companies have. Pearce said the “scholarships” would likely only amount to 5 percent of annual revenue.

Or states and the federal government could set up “coal to solar” transition funds.

Popovich said the success of solar, which along with wind still only generates a fraction of U.S. electricity, hinges on government help.

“These jobs are highly dependent on government subsidies and disappear when subsidies disappear,” he said, noting that the British solar industry has lost half its jobs since Parliament recently cut back on subsidies.

“Despite an unfriendly regulatory environment, coal will continue to play an important part in America’s energy picture,” Popovich said.