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Retrain Coal Workers for Solar

If the government really wants to help coal miners, why not train them for a new profession?

There are currently fewer than 53,000 coal miners in the U.S., about half the number of people working for the retailer J.C. Penney. (Photo: Mike McBride / CC BY-NC / Flickr

The Trump administration has announced new pollution rules for coal-fired power plants designed to keep existing coal power plants operating more and save American coal mining jobs.

Profitability for U.S. coal power plants has plummeted, and one major coal company after another has filed for bankruptcy, including the world’s largest private-sector coal company, Peabody Energy.

The main reason coal is in decline is less expensive natural gas and renewable energy like solar. Coal employment has dropped so low there are fewer than 53,000 coal miners in total in the U.S. (for comparison, the failing retailer J.C. Penny has about twice as many workers).

The EPA estimates the new rules will cause about 1,400 more premature deaths a year from coal-related air pollution by 2030. The Trump administration could avoid the premature American deaths from coal pollution — which amount to about 52,000 per year in total — and still help the coal miners themselves by retraining them for a more profitable industry, such as the solar industry.

A study I co-authored analyzed the question of retraining current coal workers for employment in the solar industry. We found that this transition is feasible in most cases and would even result in better pay for nearly all of the current coal workers.

How to make the jump?

What is left of the coal mining industry represents a unique demographic compared to the rest of America. It is white (96.4 percent); male (96.2 percent); aging, with an average age of 43.8 years old; and relatively uneducated, with 76.7 percent having earned only a high school degree or equivalent. Many are highly skilled, however, with the largest sector of jobs being equipment operators at 27 percent. Many of these skills can be transferred directly into the solar industry.

In the study, we evaluated the skill sets of current coal workers and tabulated salaries. For each type of coal position, we determined the closest equivalent solar position and tried to match current coal salaries. We then quantified the time and investment required to retrain each worker.

Our results show there is a wide variety of employment opportunities in solar — the industry overall already employs more than five times more people than in coal mining, at over 250,000 by one industry group estimate. We also found the annual pay is generally better at all levels of education, even with the lowest-skilled jobs. For example, janitors in the coal industry could increase their salaries by 7% by becoming low-skilled mechanical assemblers in the solar industry.

Overall, we found that after retraining, technical workers (the vast majority) would make more money in the solar industry than they do in coal. Also note this study was about careers and was done before an uptick in the practice of hiring temporary coal workers. The only downside on salaries we found are that managers and particularly executives would make less in solar than coal. This represents only about 3.2% of coal workers that are professional administrators.

Retraining needs

How would coal workers make this transition? There are over 40 types of solar jobs which the DOE has mapped out. They range from entry-level jobs, such as installers, to more advanced positions in engineering and technical design. Most coal workers could not simply walk into a solar job; they would need some retraining. But certain positions require less training.

For example, a structural engineer in the coal industry would not expect to need additional schooling to work as one in the solar industry. And for some coal employees, the retraining would amount to only a short course or on-the-job training. This is particularly true for installers, which represents the most common and geographically spread solar jobs.

There are various programs already set up to do this, such as California’s solar apprenticeship program or one in Oregon, for example, and another through the Interstate Renewable Energy Council.

More advanced positions would require more education. Some solar-related engineering positions call for up to a four-year university degree, which has a large range in costs, from $18,000 to over $136,000, depending on the school.

Our paper includes appendices that can help current coal workers match their existing job to the best potential fits in solar, as well as what training they’ll need. (Please note the costs and specific schools used are only examples and are not meant to be prescriptive; for example, most coal miners that need college credits would be able to find less expensive options at their own state schools.)

Overall, the analysis showed that a relatively minor investment — viewed from a nationwide retraining perspective — would allow the vast majority of coal miners to switch to solar-related positions. In the worst-case scenario we calculated, the cost was $1.87 billion.

Counting the benefits

Although there was a dip in solar jobs last year, in general the solar industry needs trained workers. Since the rapid decrease in the costs of photovoltaic technology, unsubsidized solar is now often the least expensive source of electric power, and solar deployment is rising in the U.S.

The way I see it, if the country retrains coal miners for the solar industry, the workers themselves win by making larger salaries in a growing field; America wins because we will be more economically competitive with lower-cost electricity; America wins again because of lower health care costs and reduced premature deaths from coal-fired air pollution; America wins a third time because of an improved economy and solar-related employment; and even the environment wins.

President Trump could even win by taking credit for it — he did recently sign an executive order that boosts American apprenticeships, which could be used to train coal workers for solar jobs. That is a lot of winning.

Joshua Pearce is professor of materials science and engineering at Michigan Technological University. This post originally appeared at The Conversation.

 

9 Comments

  1. mbessearchitect | | #1

    If solar is so economical, why can't they train their own workers? Or is this just another way for solar to suck at the government teat?

  2. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    M. Besse,
    When major shifts in the economy put thousands of Americans out of work, it's fairly common for government programs to engage in worker re-training -- or even, as happened during the Great Depression, for government programs to hire unemployed workers directly.

    Whether or not you think this is a good use of government resources depends on your political philosophy. In my opinion, unfettered capitalism can be a fairly brutal system, especially for workers -- so government programs that protect and support workers are a good idea.

  3. GreendadyO | | #3

    The cost of black lung disease can be very expensive: 1 million dollars for a lung transplant.

    Many states are increasing the use of renewable energy and moving away from coal and natural gas generation.

    The need for skilled workers in the renewable energy field is growing, as are the jobs.

    Training programs would be helpful to the economy and workers who become unemployed would be able to contribute to the economy and feed their families.

    The government heavily subsidizes fossil fuel industries, so why shouldn't they invest in training programs?

  4. Dennis Heidner | | #4

    The skills needed for installing solar and coal mining are very different. Retraining a heavy machine operator (crane, driller or truck driver) to install roof top panels, or wire up inverters isn't always successful. Over the last twenty or thirty years there have been numerous "retraining" programs trying to help displaced workers become "website developers" or "coders"... often with only marginal success and frequently with lower wages than those of the previous occupations of the workers.

    Perhaps a more productive suggestion for the current workers would be to help in the actual mitigation and recovery of the landscape and mining areas. If funded those activities would use the current skills without significant retraining....

    FWIW, I'd prefer to see some of the current politicians that advocate coal - retrained into jobs that involve them going deep underground and mining coal... let them encounter the real world environment.

  5. David Eakin | | #5

    If coal miners were retrained to install solar, where would they have to go to perform their work? How much would it cost them (cost of living, family estrangement, etc.) to move elsewhere? What would happen to the current locale (that political representatives are supporting) when there is a mass exodus?
    What is needed in any location where the major industries (and related jobs) are dwindling or have disappeared is not a retraining program for some job somewhere else, but the establishment of new industries in that locale so that current (and future) residents have an incentive to learn new skills to be used where they already are.

  6. GreendadyO | | #6

    Solutions to these problems won't make everyone happy. The coal companies will protect themselves, and probably not their workers if they abandon coal mines or go out of business.
    The big question is whether or not coal can be made safe.
    Can we afford to leave an environmental disaster in the wake of coal?
    Coal ash has been dumped in rivers and it is poisonous to an extreme degree.
    The taxpayers will be left with the cleanup.
    The cost of polluting the environment shows up in cancer, birth defects and other diseases.
    We already know all of these things and there have been numerous articles, documentaries and
    programs on television about this.
    The fact is that the market will dictate the future of coal and the writing is on the wall.
    Arguing about what will become of the workers and the towns they live in won't change a thing.

    We need leaders in state, county and federal governments that haven't been bought by special interests already and who represent the people.

    Destruction of the environment can have far reaching effects that will last for generations.

    How much do we care about our children and their children?

  7. User avater
    Dana Dorsett | | #7

    "If coal miners were retrained to install solar, where would they have to go to perform their work? "

    Siting solar & wind in remote flattened mountaintops and other Appalachian mining brownfield locations need additional grid connection infrastructure to hook up to the grid, but tend to have better wind and less shade than in the valleys.

    But the proximity of the job sites to the retrained workers are about the same for Applachian miners.

    https://insideclimatenews.org/news/17052018/kentucky-fuel-coal-mining-solar-power-bent-mountain-jim-justice-edf-renewables-berkeley-energy-group

    https://energynews.us/2017/05/08/southeast/solar-on-former-strip-mines-its-not-as-simple-as-it-sounds/

    https://www.courier-journal.com/story/tech/science/environment/2017/04/18/coal-company-plans-huge-solar-farm-strip-mine/100597672/

    https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/guest-post-can-coal-mines-become-solar-farms

    https://www.thesolutionsjournal.com/article/can-a-wind-farm-transform-appalachias-energy-future/

    The ~5000 people working Wyoming's sparsely populated heavily mechanized coal districts may have to move 50-150 miles to the wind-corridor counties to find work in the renewable power industry. There it would be almost strictly wind (for export to other states/regions), not solar. Those working coal in Carbon County WY may not have to move at all to find a wind energy job.

    https://www.nrdc.org/onearth/horizon-cowboy-state-wind-turbines

    The idea of retraining the coal industry work force to renewable energy jobs isn't anything new- its been at a low buzz for over a decade.

    Getting this sort of thing to happen requires policy support from state & local governments & regulatory bodies too, but it's not like it can't be done economically (in at least some locations.)

    .

    1. Dennis Heidner | | #9

      Dana, I live in Puget Sound region. My early life was spent (through 8th grade) in eastern Montana. I went to college in Montana, I have relatives still living across the state of Montana. I have friends that live in Wyoming. I spend a lot of my time looking at renewable generation. I have PV on my roof top, I've looked at (and have been inside the big hydro power plants). Roughly two years ago I visited that coal producing region of Wyoming and Montana. Nearly EVERYONE of the artilces you've provided on jobs in renewables - take a very high level look at the averages and how easy it is to just move to other jobs.

      In real life when you travel to and look at the actual regions - it would be very difficult if not impossible for many. We often forget that in the less populace areas the "nuclear family" still exists. Telling workers to disperse and take jobs elsewhere breaks up the close family. It leaves families bankrupt. If a town is dependent on only one or two industries - shutting down the industry - wipes out the value of the homes and small businesses that support the families. Must energy jobs have a multiplier factor just as the pro-sports jobs do... an energy job may create the need for several indirectly related workers (hotels, restaurants, stores, repair facilities). Using just the high level states that most of the listed studies have done - is a means to bad policy.

      If we want to transition off of fossil fuels (coal in particular) we need to create jobs that draw workers away from the coal jobs first. Or we need to have in place the jobs that truly help the transition. Germany - when they started to phase out the black coal mines in some regions - provided life time stipends for many of the workers that could not be retrained. They (Germans) then looked for ways and ideas to transition that local economy to non mining related activities.

      Fred Pearce in another story on Greenbuildingadvisor titled: "E-Waste: Taming a Global Problem", talks about the problems of shipping our electronic wastes to China for recycling.

      I would suggest that instead of telling workers that they will be retrained for wind farms, solar PV farms, or software coding -- all jobs that might need relocation and tear apart communities, that instead a better choice is to bring the jobs to them.

      Yes we can and should be installing PV on the old mine facilities. An it would be amazing to see the regions of stripped mine coal fields in Wyoming and Montana at least partially reclaimed with large solar farms laid out on the reclaimed range land.

      But we can also bring in other jobs that require additional heavy equipment operators, require more workers and use all those massive rail lines that have been installed to support the mines. Let's create recycling/reprocessing zones -- and if we are going to "tax" Chinese goods - let's use some of that revenue to get facilities going in the coal regions that draw away the workers from the mines.

      In the US, as Fred Pearce's story mentions we have a significant waste handling problem. We have land fills that are filling up. Portions of Washington State send garbage by train cars to east of the mountains to be placed in landfills. We have land fills filling up across the midwest and eastern US. Let's ship some of that to the coal regions in Montana/Wyoming - sort out useable materials - burn rest for energy, scrub the air as the burning is done... and export the electrical energy back toward the midwest. It easy to forget that those coal fields in Wyoming ship back not just coal... but there are many coal fired plants in the area that are also exporting a large amount of energy back east.

      We could also send crushed automobile bodies to Wyoming and start the recycling process and smelting in Wyoming sending the finished steel back to factories across the country... instead of shipping those cars to China for reprocessing.

      Those mines in Wyoming, Montana and the Appalachia also bring with them large differences in nearby elevation. That means we could use the ability of workers to handle large earth moving equipment to help build storage facilities for pumped hydro. Storage that would help take the variable generation from solar farms and wind farms look like a VERY dispatchable -- negating the arguments of only coal works on the grid.

  8. Thomas Trible | | #8

    During the 2016 Presidential campaign, the Democratic candidate suggested that she was going to put coal miners out of work. Her position prompted much discussion about how the coal miners would be subsequently gainfully employed. A number of enlightened folks suggested that they would be trained to become computer programmers, or code writers. Really? What is missing here in these suggestions/arguments is what those miners who still remain in the industry really want to do with their lives - and that would be to mine coal.

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