This is the third in a three-part series examining some of the key business, policy and workforce challenges in the U.S. transition to cleaner power and transportation sectors. The first part focused on electric vehicles while the second focused on efforts to decarbonize the power sector.
A child of Appalachia, Sean O'Leary is no stranger to the boom-and-mostly-bust cycle in which so many mining and fossil fuel dependent communities have found themselves entrapped. While much is said of the economic toll of the loss of coal and fossil jobs, including the layoffs and the towns that fall into disrepair, that doesn't capture the true cost, according to O'Leary. The real cost, he said, is the families torn apart as children move across the country for work.
"Because when you break up a town, you're talking about breaking up families," he said.
Between 1985 and 2020, more than 130,000 coal miners lost their jobs in the United States. Coal-fired generation is expected to see similar declines by 2025, and many who watch the energy industry expect oil and natural gas jobs to go next. The loss of what for many U.S. communities has proven a vital economic lifeline has prompted the Biden administration and many other politicians to promise a "just transition," one in which millions of new energy and infrastructure jobs will more than replace any jobs lost in fossil fuel industries. The United Mine Workers of America has backed these ambitions, calling for incentives for renewable energy companies that prioritize hiring former coal workers.
O'Leary, now a senior researcher focused on energy and economic development at the Ohio River Valley Institute, believes such promises give energy workers false hope. While there are certainly new jobs to be created in the booming renewable energy industry, O'Leary and other experts in the field say that by and large, these jobs won't go to former fossil fuel workers. Trying to force a labor transition that simply isn't practical will only continue the boom-and-bust cycle. Instead, they say, policy and industry leaders should focus elsewhere — on shoring up communities and supporting individuals' ability to choose a new career from as many options as possible.
Coal mining and power plant operations are, by no means, unskilled labor, according to Suzanne Tegen, assistant director of the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University. These jobs may not require education beyond a high school diploma, but the workers quickly amass a swath of in-demand skills, from problem solving to team building. Coal workers know how to operate heavy machinery, and they know how to make effective repairs on the fly — there's no time to stop by the hardware store or call in a specialist when something breaks below ground. Their skills are readily transferable to a variety of industries, especially environmental remediation or heavy construction,according to Tegen.
But just because a coal miner could get a job installing or repairing wind turbines, doesn't mean they would, Tegen said.
"That's not a good idea," she said. "A few years ago, we did see a lot of [policy makers] go to coal states and say, 'why don't you just build wind turbines?' and there are so many problems with that. Those are human beings we're talking about. What if someone told you, you just have to do this other job that you never wanted to do?"
While the skillset may seem similar, Tegen said, the actual work that takes place in renewable energy is actually quite different from what takes place in a coal mine or power plant. Miners, she said, work with the same tight-knit team day after day. The dangerous conditions mean they learn to rely on one another and develop deep bonds. Solar and wind technicians, on the other hand, tend to work more in isolation or on rotating teams.
"The cultural piece, is sometimes forgotten," Tegen said. Just because they use similar skills, doesn't mean these are similar jobs.
There's also a significant difference in compensation between renewable and fossil energy jobs. While the average salary in the oil and gas industry is $114,000 and $96,000 in coal, clean energy workers earn an average of $82,000, according to a 2018 study from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Solar technicians and the like don't always have access to retirement or health benefits because they're often contractors or hired through temp agencies said Lara Skinner, director of the Worker Institute's Labor Leading on Climate Initiative at Cornell University.
"That's a big thing — there's not going to be a just transition because the pay and health and retirement benefits are not there," she said.
But even if you assume that fossil fuel workers are willing to take lower-paid, isolating work, Skinner said, that doesn't guarantee they'll actually get those jobs. Coal, nuclear and even gas generating facilities are significantly more labor intensive, employing 300-1,000 workers per plant, according to Skinner. Solar and wind farms, once constructed, require only a handful of technicians for maintenance. "I've even heard about solar farms that now have robots to do the cleaning to optimize performance," Skinner said.
On top of this, regions where coal or gas have been major industries in the past don't always have access to other natural resource like ample wind or sunny days. That means relocating, and, realistically, fossil fuel workers aren't thrilled about moving across the country for a job that pays less and has no health benefits, Skinner said.
A combination of these and other factors mean that essentially none of the fossil fuel workers who have already lost their jobs have transitioned to work in renewable energy, Lee Anderson, director of governmental affairs for the Utility Workers Union of America, said.
"When they come out of the power plants, they find themselves in the economy and they need a job," he said. "The notion that you're in the energy industry so you will stay in the energy industry is lazy thinking."
Losing their job at a mine or coal-fired power plant most often means losing not only your income, but also your family's health insurance, Anderson said. Dreams of sending kids to college evaporate. Instead of retraining — an apprenticeship to become a solar technician might take two and a half years, he said — workers often pursue the path that restores their income and healthcare as fast as possible. And in many cases, Anderson said, the shortest path between two points is a commercial driver's license.
"People are under immediate economic pressure, and they have to solve that rapidly," Anderson said. "They don't have time to reinvent themselves, and that's going to remain the case unless we develop some really robust policy."
More choice, more opportunity
Experts generally agree that economic transitions are most successful when the planning effort is undertaken by local community leaders, with support from federal, state and educational institutions.
"There is no one answer to this question," Tegen said. "What has to happen is we have to work with individual towns, individual mines and plants to see what the communities are hopeful for. We have to look at their assets, at what the workers do. And we need to have experts come in and convene local stakeholders...and say what are we envisioning for our towns? What do we need to do?"
The same process can be applied to individuals' situations, Tegen said. Workforce development agencies, schools, or even utility companies can help workers choose their next steps as industries decline by helping workers identify their transferable skills, ideal jobs, and educational gaps they might need to fill.
But this alone probably isn't enough, Anderson said, if workers find themselves in immediate need of a stable job that provides income and health insurance. The Utility Workers Union of America and other parties have proposed a solution: if the federal government wants to support the clean energy transition, it should support fossil fuel workers by providing those who lose their jobs with a salary, healthcare, retirement and education benefits for five years.
"The point is, you can't expect people to reinvent their lives in a few weeks. That doesn't happen," Anderson said. Giving the workers time, gives them more choices.
Anderson estimates that the total cost of offering such a program, which has been included in legislation sponsored by Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), to former coal workers would run about $32 billion over the course of the five-year program.
O'Leary has had similar thoughts. With less than 50,000 coal miners left in the U.S., the government could write every single one of them a severance check of $600,000 for $30 billion. Then they could take the money and use it to retrain, retire, start a business, send the next generation to college — whatever happened to make sense in their personal circumstances.
But the hitch with that plan, O'Leary said, is that it's not just the workers who are hurt by the loss of fossil fuel jobs — it's entire communities. And even if every worker got a $600,000 check to start over, it wouldn't necessarily help if the local schools and community centers close on account of lost tax revenue.
Case study in Centralia
Creating jobs in renewable energy by itself won't solve either problem — it can't put former miners and coal plant employees to work fast enough, and it won't save communities, O'Leary said. But there might be an energy-adjacent solution to be gleaned from the other side of the country in Centralia, Washington.
O'Leary believes Centralia made multiple smart moves in the wake of the closure of the local coal mine. A locally driven initiative provided funding and educational opportunities for individual workers and their families, but let individuals decide on a transition plan that made the most sense for their situation. But where Centralia really stands out with respect to the energy transition, O'Leary said, is in the emphasis the community placed on renewable energy.
Beginning in 2016, Centralia residents had access to grant funds from the Centralia Coal Transition Board that met one of three criteria: education and job training for displaced workers, funds to install distributed clean energy generation, or funds to complete energy efficiency upgrades. As in other cases, O'Leary said, commercial trucking proved to be the most popular retraining option for the ex-miners, and the renewable energy projects didn't generate a large number of new jobs. The energy efficiency initiative, on the other hand, created 3-4 times as many jobs as electrical generation or even mining, allowing Centralia to add jobs at twice the rate of the nation as a whole from 2016 to 2018.
Because energy efficiency upgrades are more labor intensive than energy generation, the energy efficiency grant recipients spent 60-70 cents of every dollar they received on hiring laborers from various industries, compared to about 20 cents per dollar for generation projects. These funds were also more likely to go to local workers, because the kinds of services efficiency improvements typically require — heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, door and window replacement, and electrical engineering — tend to be performed by local businesses.
Energy efficiency also kept money in the local community by cutting resident's power bills — a multiplier that proved critical as former mine workers largely chose to take pay cuts in order to take jobs that didn't require relocation.
"It reduced utility bills so much that we're almost at the tipping point where the amount of savings, which translates into disposable income, is soon going to exceed the value of the the grants," O'Leary said.
Homes and businesses became more comfortable. Schools and the local community college got a facelift. Downtown was gradually revitalized. And now, five years later, Centralia is realizing the second phase of its rebirth: interested in the town's growing standard of living, large employers are beginning to consider locating operations in the area.
Renewable energy might not provide direct employment for former fossil fuel workers, O'Leary said, but energy efficiency — an oft forgot piece of the climate puzzle — could be worth paying more attention to.
"It's a remarkable thing to watch it happen," O'Leary said. "It's also very powerful, because it's something that can be replicated, and that's the exciting thing about it."