Coal workers can be transitioned to renewable energy jobs throughout the U.S.

When people talk about ending fossil fuel use, there are a wide variety of objections. The one that I think is perhaps the most valid, is concern for those workers whose livelihoods currently rely on the extraction, processing, transportation, and use of oil, coal, and natural gas. I don’t remember when I first heard this objection, but as with so many other “arguments“, no matter how many times it’s addressed, it keeps coming up. If we remove the fossil fuel industry, the obvious answer is to make sure that fossil fuel workers either get new jobs that fit their skills, or be given a dignified retirement if they’re old enough that retraining seems like a waste of their remaining time. Honestly, I’d be fine just making sure they all have their needs met regardless of whether jobs are found for them, since I think that should be the default for everyone.

But I get the concern. Capitalism – and U.S. history in particular – is rife with examples of industries that either died, or moved overseas. Detroit is probably the most famous example of this. Its auto industry was gutted, the money all left, and the city’s working class – having made the auto industry fabulously wealthy – was left to twist in the wind. Under the system we have, if your industry dies, there’s a good chance that you and your family with die too, or at least any hope for a life free from the horrors of poverty. The solution that I prefer doesn’t really matter on a practical level, because I have virtually no power to affect policy. Most people who are worried about their jobs aren’t really looking for “have a revolution” as the solution. Fossil fuel workers may or may not be on board with a new, left-wing re-imagining of society, but until it’s actually happening, it’s not a valid alternative to their very real jobs.

The more short-term solution, from a left-wing, ground-up perspective, might be to pool resources to ensure that people’s needs are met, but that’s gonna feel like charity to a lot of people, and at this stage there’s simply not the organization to demonstrate that we can actually promise to keep people housed and fed. Regardless of our ultimate goals, we need to be able to offer solutions within the system we have, and we need to be able to show that those solutions are actually within reach.

A research team at the University of Michigan has shown that we can absolutely replace every coal job in the United States with a renewable energy job:

As of 2019, coal-fired electricity generation directly employed nearly 80,000 workers at more than 250 plants in 43 U.S. states. The new U-M study quantifies—for the first time—the technical feasibility and costs of replacing those coal jobs with local wind and solar employment across the country.

The study, published online Aug. 10 in the peer-reviewed journal iScience, concludes that local wind and solar jobs can fill the electricity generation and employment gap, even if it’s required that all the new jobs are located within 50 miles of each retiring coal plant.

Keeping employment local would increase the costs of replacing U.S. coal-plant workers by $83 billion, or 24%, nationwide, according to the study.

“These costs are significant in isolation but are small relative to annual U.S. power investments of $70 billion and to the total costs of transitioning the U.S. energy system away from fossil fuels, which have been estimated to be as high as $900 billion by 2030,” said study senior author Michael Craig of U-M’s School for Environment and Sustainability.

“Our results indicate that replacing lost jobs in coal-plant communities would modestly increase overall energy-transition costs while significantly furthering a just transition for one category of frontline communities,” said Craig, assistant professor of energy systems and an expert on power system emissions, operations and planning.

Obviously, the cost doesn’t bother me at all. I have my doubts as to whether it actually bothers anyone – most of the objections are probably from people who have an ideological problem with government action, or with ending fossil fuel use. Still, for those who still just see big numbers and general claims, the authors do go into a bit more detail:

The U-M researchers say federal policymakers could introduce a new investment tax credit to help defray the costs of achieving local replacement of coal with renewables. Such a credit would only apply to wind and solar projects that are located near retiring coal plants and that employ retrained coal-plant workers.

Previous studies have concluded that aggressively mitigating climate change will require deep, sustained reductions in emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide gas.

Since electric power is the cheapest sector to decarbonize, much of the early U.S. emissions reductions have come from that sector, largely due to a shift from coal to natural gas in the electricity-generation mix.

Many decarbonization pathways retire most or all U.S. coal-fired power plants within the next 10 to 20 years. Electricity generation from those retired plants will need to be replaced by new, low-carbon sources of energy. Despite the rapid growth of wind and solar power in the United States, previous research has not quantified the feasibility and costs of replacing coal jobs with local wind and solar jobs across the country.

The new U-M study helps fill those research gaps. It applies a bottom-up optimization model to all coal plants in the contiguous United States and assumes a full phase-out of the U.S. coal-fired fleet by 2030.

As each coal plant retires, the model requires new renewable investments to replace the retiring plant’s electricity generation and employment. The model replaces coal-plant power generation and employment with wind and solar located within specified distances from retiring power plants.

The researchers analyzed three “siting limits,” the maximum distance that replacement solar and wind facilities can be located relative to a retiring coal plant: 50 miles, 500 miles and 1,000 miles. The 50-mile limit approximates local solar and wind facilities and jobs that would not require relocation of coal plant workers, while the 1,000-mile limit includes jobs that would require relocation.

The researchers found that across most U.S. regions and siting limits, annual renewable energy employment fully replaces coal employment. In all regions and for all siting limits, retiring coal plants are replaced with a mix of wind and solar power.

Operations and maintenance jobs account for 57% to 92% of the replacement employment at wind and solar facilities while construction jobs play a lesser role, according to the study. O&M jobs include field technicians and administrative and management staff.

I think it’s fair to say that this sort of research will not persuade coal barons like Joe Manchin, but I think it could well persuade some of his current supporters that he doesn’t have their interests at heart, when he refuses to support better alternatives and a brighter future for the people of his state. I hate to mention that asshole, but it keeps coming back to the same thing, doesn’t it? We have the “solutions”, we just lack the political power to enact them (which is why organizing and building collective power is key). Without that, knowing that we can do this doesn’t do much beyond raising our blood pressure when we keep not doing it. Even though I don’t think our system is capable of a real response to climate change that addresses environmental injustice, it’s important to recognize that even progress that’s not far enough can still be a big step in the right direction.

And for every step, we can celebrate, and point to the clear evidence that more steps are both needed, and entirely possible.

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  1. Katydid says

    You might not know that there have been several attempts to provide free training to former coal workers to give them good job skills for other areas. Every single attempt has been met with name-calling, stubborn resistance, outright refusal, and clinging to a dying industry. The Republicans instigate this behavior and the base eats it up with a spoon.

  2. says

    Free training is not the same as actually providing a job. Why would they want training for a job that doesn’t exist where they are, when they have a job already?

    The solution needs to go beyond giving them a “fighting chance” or whatever.

  3. Katydid says

    @Abe: renewable energy such as solar and often wind, is available everywhere. There is not a state in the USA that never, ever gets sunshine, nor does the wind never blow.

    The steel jobs that boomed from WWII through the 1970s were great jobs and paid well. They’re gone now, and all along the rust belt are people whose grandparents lived the good life on those jobs…but they’re gone now, and a lot has been read about the population who are stubbornly waiting for the steel mills to reopen. Billy Joel had a hit song about it, Allentown, 40 years ago. Two generations. Coal mining paid very well in its day, but that is going away as well. But people liked the good money of the coal mine and are chasing that dream no matter that it died.

  4. says

    @Katydid – that history is why a lot of those people are clinging so hard to what they have. What happened to the people left behind when those industries collapsed? Coal miners know they’re on the edge, but they also know how rich their bosses are, and how much their bosses are fighting to keep the industry alive.

    And they can’t ship a coal mine overseas, so as long as there’s coal in the ground, there’s a job extracting it.

    If you want them to see themselves as part of what comes next, rather than those who hope THEY won’t be the ones crushed by the wheel of history, then you have to actually put that hope within reach. Picking up and moving in the hopes of a new career isn’t a viable option for most people. It’s true that the potential for renewable energy is everywhere – that’s literally the conclusion of this research.

    But in the system the US has, new industries pop up where rich people decide to fund them, not where jobs are needed. If the job’s not THERE, then people aren’t going to believe it’ll arise.

    Maybe I’m wrong, but if you give them a job with a contract that covers x amount of time in training at full pay, and x number of years on the job to settle in – they’ll be more likely to take that, over spending their time on training for a job that might show up soon.

  5. says

    I will add that you’re right about their attitude and politics being a problem. That’s why I think it will take actual jobs with contracts and pay appearing – because they think everyone involved in environmentalism is lying to them for their own reasons. Or, if they’re not entirely in the right-wing echo chamber, they can see how past promises of change and prosperity – free trade agreements – led to jobs vanishing overseas.

    In either case, yes – it’s absolutely an uphill battle, but it’s one we have to fight either way. Nothing about any of this is easy.

  6. Katydid says

    @Abe; agreed, nothing about this is easy. But, I remember seeing on the news job training programs for computer coding WHICH CAN BE DONE FROM HOME, as we learned in the pandemic. And, as I said, the sun shines everywhere in the USA. There likely are solar jobs looking for workers, but it’s easier and more satisfying for some to lie around at home whining about how life is treating them unfairly and how their grandfather supported 9 kids on a miner’s salary.

    Additionally, I’ve paid attention to something going on in my state. From back in the 1990s and 2000s when my local newspaper actually had local news and followed trends and stories over time, I learned about my adopted state’s steel mill and factory history. During WWII, factories and steel mills were begging for workers, and they ended up importing a lot of them from JD Vance country (that is, Appalachia). The factories and mills set up nice new tract housing, grocery stores, community halls, and other things for their new employees. A far cry from the holler–the new workers had electricity and running water for the first time.

    The important thing was people willing to do the job; education and ambition weren’t requirements. And the same thing has happened as happened in Vance’s book (this is not an endorsement of him and his book!!!): the first generation worked the factories and mills for a salary that seemed unimaginable back home, their sons dropped out of high school at 16 and worked the factories and the mills because the pay was so good they didn’t need an education or ambition…but by the 1970s, those industries dried up, leaving the third generation without jobs.

    HOWEVER (as is a problem in my state), the culture has not changed with the generations. The belief is that they are entitled to drop out of high school and maybe marry their baby-mama (or maybe not) and collect an unimaginable salary. But they have nothing to offer because they’re uneducated and unwilling to be educated. Working the trades or retail is beneath them.

    So, while my state has IT, bio-medical, research, and financial jobs galore plus all the support jobs (retail, gyms, airports, hospitality, public transportation, etc.) available, these folks simply won’t reach for them because they are “owed” great-paying jobs in an industry that died 50 years ago.

  7. says

    Like I said – it’s not like I don’t think those obstacles exist, and it’s not like we need to get their permission to change the world.

    But part of changing it means making it better for them, too.

  8. Katydid says

    @Abe, maybe I’m just not getting what you’re saying? You and I often agree so I’m a bit confused that we seem to be at cross-arguments.

    “Take this free training we’re offering you so you can start in a good-paying job in a strong, good-paying field” does seem to be to be “making it better for them”.

    But then, we’re talking about the same mentality that would rather shove a lightbulb up their butts and gargle horse dewormer than take a free vaccination that’s been proven to keep them from dying.

  9. says

    I don’t think we necessarily need to undo their brainwashing before we have a chance to “win”, but I do think we can’t make the world better by following the framework of society as it currently exists.

    I don’t just want us to have the world as it’s been, minus fossil fuel use. I want more for humanity than that.

    I am not suggesting that we delay energy transition or the elimination of fossil fuels for the sake of people who refuse to consider that they might be wrong about the world. I’m saying that as we work to change the world around them, I think we should do what we can to make their lives better for that change, along with everyone else.

    It’s like how I want them to have universal healthcare – even the ones who would gladly have me killed. If it comes to a fight, well, we do what we must. But in terms of what I’m working towards, it’s a world in which the death of an industry doesn’t destroy lives just because those at a top found a better path to wealth and power.

    I want to take away these people’s livelihoods, I just want to have something real to replace them with. In case you’re worried, though, I believe that’s less of a priority than making sure their political movement doesn’t have the power to destroy lives.

  10. says

    I also think it’s overly dismissive to call it brainwashing – I shouldn’t have done that.

    The effects of indoctrination and echo chambers are more complex than that, and I don’t mean to imply that they’re just “innocent victims” or whatever.

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