US solar industry hailed as ‘light at end of tunnel’ for jobless coal miners

For quite some time now the global coal industry has been suffering from nose-diving prices and coordinated efforts by governments to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. But perhaps the most affected so far has been the US coal sector, where competition from other fuels such as natural gas and tougher proposed regulation have pushed a number of producers to seek bankruptcy protection, leaving at least 50,000 people out of work in the last six years.

According to a recent study, however, the solution may be just around the corner as all those unemployed coal miners could be easily and cheaply retrained to work in the solar industry.

Less than 5% of yearly coal sector revenue would pay to retrain workers in the solar industry, says the study.

In a paper recently published in the journal of Energy Economics, Michigan University associate professor Joshua Pearce and Oregon State University’s Ph.D student Edward Louie, argue that the booming US solar market could easily absorb the job losses that have occurred in the domestic coal business over the next 15 years.

While it is a somewhat idealized scenario, Louie and Pearce explore three questions: How closely do the skills in the coal industry match those needed in the solar industry? What would it cost to retrain coal miners? And where could those funds come from?

The answers are all quite optimistic: The skills match pretty well, it wouldn’t cost that much, and there are a number of possible sources of funding.

As Pearce himself summarizes in a piece written for the Harvard Business Review:

“…We looked at all current coal industry positions (from engineers to mining and power plant operators to administrative workers), the skill sets required for each (for example, specific degrees and amount of work experience), and their respective average salaries. For each type of coal position, we determined the closest equivalent solar position and salary.

For example, an operations engineer in the coal industry could retrain to be a manufacturing technician in solar and expect about a 10% salary increase. Similarly, explosive workers, ordinance handlers, and blasters in the coal industry could use their sophisticated safety experience and obtain additional training to become commercial solar technicians and earn about 11% more on average.”

Winners and losers

According to the academic, those retrained coal workers would have much better salaries in the solar industry than in the coal sector, but the big losers would be managers and top executives, who would make a lot less. (Though coal industry executives may not attract much sympathy for this considering some bad publicity fuelled by recent news).

US solar industry hailed as ‘light at end of tunnel’ for jobless coal miners

Taken from "Downsizing the U.S. coal industry: Can a slow-motion train wreck be avoided?" | November 2015 report from McKinsey and Co.

In terms of costs, the study shows a relatively minor investment ($180 million to $1.8 billion, based on best and worst case scenarios) would be necessary to retrain the vast majority of US coal workers, depending on type of job and prior experience.

Despite the rosy picture, some analysts such as energy and environmental consultant Winston Porter, a former EPA assistant administrator in Washington, D.C., believe the pitiable state of the US coal industry may be very hard to reverse. As he wrote for the Casper Star Tribune:

“Consider that it was just 10 years ago that coal generated 50 percent of the nation’s electricity. Today, coal generates about 32 percent of our power and that percentage is likely to decline further…

Some 350 U.S. coal plants have been shuttered in just the past five years. These are plants that have either been closed for good or have been converted to burn natural gas.

New coal power plants, which would increase demand for U.S.-mined coal, aren’t coming to the rescue. Anti-coal environmental groups, led by the Sierra Club, have made it all but impossible to build a new coal plant in the U.S. Utilities have more or less given up – not a single new coal plant is planned.”

Pearce and Louie’s paper is not the first to highlight the potential benefits of retraining coal workers to be absorbed by the growing renewables industry. A report released in July by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), which represents the majority of the UK's trade unions, urged for more programs to ensure the country's workforce is prepared for the low-carbon transition.

Currently, there are about 150,000 people working in the US coal sector. By comparison, the local solar industry already employs 209,000. Not bad, considering that the US, as a whole, added only 255,000 new jobs in July.