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The Future of American Labor: Coal vs. Solar

Coal jobs are in decline. Solar jobs are on the rise. The new face of labor is clean.

America is undoubtedly entering a new era in respect to how we work. In recent decades, jobs have become increasingly insecure, and the idea that hard work and loyalty will be rewarded with a steady job and a pension is a thing of the past. Post WWII workers often spent their entire careers with one company, and the majority of baby-boomers worked for the same employer for 10-20 years. Now, younger workers are changing jobs every three years, on average. In the fast-changing world of energy production, jobs in older technologies like coal production are naturally being eliminated as new technologies (like solar and wind energy) mature.

As statistics, job losses in one area of energy production and jobs created in another may seem like the natural market shifts of an economy based on supply and demand, but in the lives of the workers, it is a much more complicated issue. A young coal miner may be able to go back to school, relocate and make the transition to working as a solar installer. An older miner probably cannot. A friend of mine recently envisioned a “Grapes of Wrath” scenario of former, in which caravans of West Virginia coal miners migrate to California to work as solar installers. Is that a real possibility?


The two major party candidates in the 2016 presidential race are making radically different promises when it comes to energy jobs. In May, Donald Trump said in coal country:

“Let me tell you: the miners in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, which was so great to me last week and Ohio and all over, they’re going to start to work again, believe me. You’re going to be proud again to be miners.” Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton made a huge political gaff… by telling the truth to West Virginia coal miners. “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” She also said that those jobs would be replaced with new “clean energy” jobs, but that, of course, was not the soundbite du jour. The die was cast- with Donald Trump firmly the candidate of coal, and Hillary Clinton in the role of the solar industry’s best hope for a level playing field in the next four years.

Could President Trump deliver on promises to restore the greatness of the coal industry? Only the most naive believe that he can. Cyrus Sanati wrote in Fortune Magazine that “Donald Trump’s promise to bring coal mining jobs back to West Virginia is pure fantasy. Even if environmental protections are eased under a Trump presidency, demand for coal, especially West Virginian coal, will continue to decline due purely to market forces.”

The United States has lost approximately 191,000 jobs in the coal mining industry since September 2014 including approximately 7,000 that were lost in April, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Can Donald Trump bring those jobs back? Perhaps… but only by radical government intervention. That would be a tough position to defend for a self-professed “free market guy.” Is it time to roll out the old “buggy whip manufacturing” analogy? The fact is, coal is in decline, and despite a century of government subsidies, it is time to let it scale down. Now, the question is, can coal workers transition into new, clean energy jobs, as suggested by Mrs. Clinton?

A recent report by two professors from Michigan Technological University tackled exactly that question. “Retraining Investment for U.S. Transition from Coal to Solar Photovoltaic Employment” by  Edward P. Louie and Joshua M. Pearce examined the viability of transferring coal industry workers to the new, growing solar job market. They found that “The results of the study show that a relatively minor investment ($180 million to $1.8 billion, based on best and worst case scenarios) in retraining would allow the vast majority of U.S. coal workers to switch to solar-related positions. Of course, training times depend on type of job and prior experience.” Looks good on paper, right? Obviously, it’s not as easy as simply taking every coal industry worker and inserting them into a shiny new solar job. It can’t happen overnight. But it needs to happen, and it appears that it CAN happen… at least theoretically.

The transition from coal-based electricity generation to cleaner, safer and more economical technologies WILL happen over time, regardless of which candidate is elected in November. This train has left the station. Sadly, it may take a generation before coal miners are willing to give up their dangerous, unhealthy careers, come out of their deep, dark holes in the ground, and choose a life in the sun.




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