Coal Workers Can Expect a Pay Bump by Getting a Job in Solar Energy

Fossil fuel workers can prosper in the clean energy revolution if politics don't get in the way.

May 22 2017, 5:30pm

The push for the United States to achieve 100-percent clean energy at a local and national level is an encouraging sign of how mainstream renewable resources have become. But there's a lot of deliberation with which we need to approach the transition to ensure that working-class Americans in the fossil fuel industry -- particularly coal -- don't become collateral damage.

On the one hand, clean energy proponents --often labeled as liberals -- point out things like how the entire coal industry employs a few more people than Whole Foods, and a few less than Arby's. On the other, fossil fuel stalwarts -- typically described as conservatives -- display a knee-jerk rejection of clean energy in favor of the insistence that we all romanticize black lung. Trump has promised repeatedly to bring coal jobs back, but anyone in a position to know will tell you those jobs have already been gone for a long time.

Even the founder of the nation's largest privately held coal mining company has said Trump can't bring coal jobs back, despite being an ardent supporter. What we're left with is the prospect of job retraining, capitalizing on coal workers' existing skillsets to ensure they aren't left behind.

Per the 2017 U.S. Energy and Employment Report, the biggest job-provider in the energy sector -- solar -- employs more workers than coal, natural gas, and oil combined. And a focus on solar when we consider the logistics of job retraining feels actually quite promising. A 2016 Energy Economics study examined every type of job within the coal industry -- from operations engineers to explosives workers -- and found their most natural analog in the solar sector.

Because of the rapid rate at which solar is expanding, they also found that not only could nearly all workers in the coal industry be absorbed into solar, but that they could expect a pay increase of around 10 percent, depending on the specific position. Most lower-skilled jobs would require little actual retraining. In total, the investment needed to facilitate the transition could run anywhere between $180 million to $1.8 billion. The perceived costs are seen by most as well worth the investment.

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The question of who pays for all this does not have a single answer, nor will it necessarily be fair. The most viable option might be to make job retraining a condition of certain companies' energy subsidies Ideally, there would be better protections for employees so certain companies couldn't run off with their pensions.The natural gas industry has a little more capital, and could conceivably be pressured at the state level to fund retraining in order to receive the tax breaks everyone's so fond of. But for coal, the industry where companies are bankrupting in succession like dominoes, the onus needs to be on solar to realistically absorb the cost. If the government -- state or federal -- wanted to make solar subsidies contingent on retraining workers transitioning over from coal, the industry would be able to afford it. And there are already nascent programs, like the Solar Training Network, that are investing in the same thing.

What this doesn't solve is the issue of relocation. Not every coal community gets enough sunlight to generate the level of electricity that makes investors want to invest. Inevitably, some people will need to move, or (more likely) pursue jobs in other spheres; there probably won't ever be a perfect solution to that. This is at the crux of the conservative perception that renewable energy is killing communities, not just jobs, and to a certain degree it's true.

But it's also true that conservatives have been able to embrace the shift once they realize how lucrative it is. Republican politicians in Iowa have largely decoupled wind energy from the liberal clean-energy agenda after simply realizing what a staggering boon it is to the state's economy. ERCOT, the entity that runs 90 percent of the electric grid in Texas, receives huge investments from state legislature seeking to beef up renewable infrastructure because it brings down electricity prices. In Georgia, Tea Party founding member Debbie Dooley has been advocating solar energy as a means to give constituents freedom from big power companies and the choice to use small private ones.

Renewable energy is actually pretty in line with the core conservative values of independence and a limited government -- it allows people to choose where they get their energy from, disconnecting them from the grid and letting them essentially power themselves without relying on anyone. If real progress is going to be made in addressing America's energy crisis and in protecting the livelihood of working people, it's high time to drop the politics and partisan pitfalls.