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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