What Is The Future For Coal Workers?

Yesterday we discussed the future of the coal industry on KPCC’s AirTalk, but what about the future for coal workers?  We agreed on the show yesterday that the future of coal in the U.S. is not bright, given cheap natural gas and environmental policies.  So how can we help transition these coal workers to more sustainable jobs?

Clean energy advocates typically argue for retraining them to work in renewable energy, like solar and wind.  But Gizmodo throws some cold water on how easy this would be, noting the geographic mismatch of coal states and renewable policies and prime locations:

Solar and wind jobs pop up in places where sunshine and wind are abundant. Sunny California leads the solar industry, with 40% of all solar jobs found in the state. Iowa, Kansas and South Dakota exemplify the potential for wind energy in the Midwest, with a quarter of each states’ total electricity production coming from wind. Even Texas, well known for its oil resources, produced 13% of its electricity from wind in 2016. But could solar or wind jobs pop up in major coal mining states, such as Wyoming, West Virginia or Kentucky?

Furthermore, these coal states have virtually no incentives for renewables.  So they would need to drastically revamp their domestic policies to create a market for renewable jobs.  Otherwise, coal workers would essentially have to abandon these states to find work in more prosperous regions — hardly a recipe for success for rural America, at least in the short term.

But if we could figure out the retraining process, the jobs in renewables can be very rewarding.  As my colleagues at the UC Berkeley Labor Center described in the “Link between Good Jobs and a Low Carbon Future,” renewable energy has provided good blue collar jobs throughout California, paying an average of $46/hour plus health, pension, and training benefits.

The key is to get sufficient funding for these worker retraining programs, which aren’t cheap.  Gizmodo reports:

The cost isn’t trivial. In 2016, Joshua Pearce, a Materials Science & Engineering professor at Michigan Technological University, estimated the cost of retraining coal workers for the solar industry. He found that it would cost the five most coal-dependent states between $120 million (“best case scenario”) and $1.1 billion (“worst case scenario”) to do so. An apprenticeship would cost around $18,000, while advanced degrees, enabling miners to become engineers or project managers, could cost over $136,000. The study assumes that lower-ranking miners would pursue apprenticeships, while seniors would go for degrees from top-tier schools.

Some California counties have successfully leveraged solar investment in their regions to pay for these job training programs.  So that could present a promising option for states to use any solar fee revenues to fund these programs.  And if the jobs are union, then the unions themselves can pay for these retraining programs, saving taxpayers and these companies from some of that burden.

But the bottom line is that American politicians and renewable advocates need to get serious about this issue and start taking our jobs success stories in places like California to a nationwide audience.  We also need to address the practical challenges to worker retraining.  It won’t happen with this current administration, but it shouldn’t stop individual states and local leaders from acting now.