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While Coal Loses Nearly 50,000 Jobs, Wind and Solar Add 79,000

Katherine Tweed's picture
Greentech Media
  • Member since 2018
  • 180 items added with 102,025 views
  • Apr 9, 2015

coal mining jobs

Natural gas still outpaces renewable job growth, but the numbers are up for debate.

As coal plants are shuttered due to increasing regulation and competition from cheap natural gas and renewables, coal industry jobs are being shed by the thousands, according to new research from Duke University

From 2008 to 2012, the U.S. coal industry, from mining to power plants, lost nearly 50,000 jobs, about 12 percent of the total during the five-year period. The research did not include coal jobs that weren’t associated with electricity production.

During the same period, wind and solar added about 79,000 jobs and natural gas tacked on more than 94,000 jobs. When the researchers also accounted for indirect jobs, natural gas, wind and solar brought in nearly 220,000 jobs. Hydro and nuclear were not included as the numbers were relatively steady throughout the timeframe.

The figures for coal are probably even starker since 2012. Coal’s dominant position in the U.S. electricity market is increasingly under threat with every passing year, a trend that is only gaining momentum

In 2014, the U.S. Energy Information Administration increased its short-term coal retirement prediction by nearly 50 percent, with an estimate that about 60 gigawatts will retire by 2016. Meanwhile, a report from The Solar Foundation found that there were more than 173,000 solar jobs in the U.S. in 2014, an increase of nearly 22 percent over the previous year.

The research paper from Duke, led by Drew Haerer at the Nicholas School of the Environment, did not take into account construction, installation and manufacturing, but it did account for operations and maintenance such as mining, extraction, transportation and distribution. For fossil fuel jobs, construction and installation are regarded as short-term work, such as when power plants are being built, and they make up only a fraction of the overall jobs picture.

But for wind, the number of O&M jobs compared to construction and installation is about equal, and for solar, O&M is the lower figure, the researchers noted. The methodology somewhat skews the results, particularly because it does not account for distributed solar and those installation jobs. The report from The Solar Foundation, for instance, is projecting that nearly 119,000 of 210,000 solar jobs in 2015 will be in installation.

Even with the difficulty in analyzing job growth figures for specific energy industries, the authors found that natural gas, wind and solar all have higher multipliers of indirect to direct jobs. Coal creates about two indirect jobs for every direct one. That figure rises to about three for natural gas, while wind and solar might be as high as 10, although the authors cautioned the latter estimate may be somewhat inflated.

The overall growth in jobs in emerging energy technologies is not creating opportunity equally across the U.S. Coal jobs lost in states such as Kentucky and West Virginia are not being replaced at the same pace with job opportunities in the cleantech or natural-gas sectors. 

“The near- to moderate-term picture for jobs in the coal industry does not look promising,” stated Haerer, urging policymakers to consider options to adapt at a local level through stronger renewable energy policy or job retraining.

Photo Credit: Changing Energy Industry Employment/shutterstock

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Charlie Hewitt's picture
Charlie Hewitt on Apr 9, 2015

There is no doubt that the generation fuel mix in the U.S. is changing.  Here are a couple of additional points to consider:

Cheap natural gas and increasing environmental reguation have been the primary contributors to the deline of coal as a generation fuel.  While the installed capacity of renewable generation has dramatically increased, these generation resources are a poor substitute for baseload generation.  Examining the resource planning process at the various ISOs reveals that renewable generation resources are heavily discounted due to the inability of system operators to call on those resources at any given time.  We are really seeing coal primarily displaced by natural gas and only to far lesser extent by renewable energy.

I have seen several articles like this that focus on job counts, job-shifting, and retraining.  I have not seen any analysis on ancillary impacts of the decline in coal generation.  For example, what happens to schools and hospital districts that receive benefits from coal severance taxes?  There are no solar severance taxes.  What happens to communities that have relied on high-paying jobs at mines and power plants?  Solar is a distributed industry with multitudes of installers scattered throughout the U.S.  Coal is geographically concentrated.  I have worked in the Powder River Basin and Central Appalachia and am very familiar with those regions.  It would be interesting to see a through study on the impact of fuel-shifting on all aspects of the economy rather than just direct and indirect job projections.

Josh Nilsen's picture
Josh Nilsen on Apr 10, 2015

It’s getting really bad in West Virginia and Wyoming.  These two coal bastions are collapsing like dying stars.

India has recently stonewalled imported coal.  China is massively reducing their intake.  Australia is looking like they won’t even have anyone to export their coal to.

The game is done for coal.  Anyone involved with coal needs to have an exit plan or they aren’t going to have a job in 5 years.

This shift happened so fast most people are still in shock / denial.

Grace Adams's picture
Grace Adams on Apr 10, 2015

Charlie Hewitt  An electric utility needs energy storage and smart grid electronics to store excess energy from intermittent energy sources (mostly wind and solar) to use it during times when demand is high and supply is low to better match supply and demand.  I believe we need so badly to replace fossil fuel especially coal with renewable energy that our federal government will need both to tax energy regardless of where it comes from and to divert money from military pork to equipment to harness renewable energy to equipment to harness renewable energy including storage and smart grid electronics made by too big to fail MIC firms and sell the equipment to utilities on mortgages same length as service life of equipment and use mortgage payments to buy coal as mineral rights but insist that coal firms pay fair share of early retirement for older workers and retraining for other jobs for younger workers. Pollution from coal costs so much in higher health care costs plus higher weather-related disaster costs plus damage to agriculture that replacing coal with renewable energy should pay for itself in two or three decades.

Katherine Tweed's picture
Thank Katherine for the Post!
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