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The Labor Market, The Energy Market, and America’s Future

Unemployment rose slightly in August, Hurricane Harvey dealt a blow to Texas oil refineries and an international trade dispute threatens to hurt solar jobs. Is there a silver lining to cloudy labor and energy news?

A new report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that the US added only 156,000 jobs in August, missing favourable economic predictions. The unemployment rate rose to 4.4% from 4.3%, and wages remain stagnant. What role is the energy sector, and solar in particular, playing in the current job numbers?

Last labor day, I reported on the decline in coal mining jobs and the possibility of moving workers in the energy sector toward the new, clean energy industry of solar. I looked at a report by two professors from Michigan Technological University entitled  “Retraining Investment for U.S. Transition from Coal to Solar Photovoltaic Employment.” authored by Edward P. Louie and Joshua M. Pearce, the report found 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.”  Well, a lot has happened over the last year, not least of all the election of Donald J. Trump, a man who claims to love the coal industry.

“In Pennsylvania, two weeks ago, they opened a mine, the first mine that was opened in decades….Well, we picked up 45,000 mining jobs in a very short period of time,” Trump said during an event pegged to American manufacturing. “Everybody was saying, ‘Well, you won’t get any mining jobs,’ we picked up 45,000 mining jobs. Well, the miners are very happy with Trump and with Pence, and we’re very proud of that.”

The President’s statement is simply false.

The president made this claim in July. It sounds like big job news indeed, but sadly, for coal miners, the president’s statement is simply not true.The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates there are roughly 50,700 coal mining jobs nationwide. There has been an increase since the president was elected, though. 2,000 is the correct number. For a little perspective- eight times more Americans work at Home Depot than in the coal industry.

Meanwhile, more accurate data comes to us by way of The 2017 U.S. Energy and Employment Report (USEER) from the US Department of Energy. The report finds that the Traditional Energy and Energy Efficiency sectors today employ approximately 6.4 million Americans. These sectors increased in 2016 by just under 5 percent, adding over 300,000 net new jobs, roughly 14% of all those created in the country. How those jobs break down by sector is eye-opening.

The solar industry employs just under 374,000 people, while coal, gas and oil power generation combined had a workforce of slightly more than 187,000. Unfortunately for the president, the numbers simply do not bear out his claims that new jobs are happening in the coal industry. The truth is, one out of every 50 new jobs created in the United States last was in the solar industry.

Looking for a job in the Energy Industry? Hint: Don’t become a coal miner.

“With a near tripling of solar jobs since 2010, the solar industry is an American success story that has created hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs,” said Andrea Luecke, President and Executive Director of The Solar Foundation. “In 2016, we saw a dramatic increase in the solar workforce across the nation, thanks to a rapid decrease in the cost of solar panels…”

According to the Solar Foundation’s research, 65 percent of solar employers reported that difficulty finding qualified workers led to increased costs, while 68 percent said it impacts their ability to grow. There simply aren’t enough properly trained workers to fill all of the “well-paying jobs” that Luecke refers to. All indicators are that the solar industry is going to continue to add new jobs above the pace of other industries into the near future.

And what about wages? As I mentioned, new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistic show flat wages across much of the country. Wages are the one area where coal miners have the advantage over solar installers. The average hourly wage for coal miners is $35 an hour, compared to $25 for solar installers. Veteran coal miners may be reluctant to switch careers, but for younger workers the choice is clear. The better, safer, healthier working conditions in a growing industry make solar a far more attractive career path than that offered by coal, where ever-increasing automation makes it less and less likely that coal mining jobs will be available in the future. In a recent New York Times article, Janice Bellace, an industrial relations expert at the Wharton School… “voiced alarm that the Trump administration seems far more concerned about the loss of several thousand coal jobs than what she sees as a far bigger threat: the prospect that automation, artificial intelligence and robots, such as self-driving cars and trucks, will wipe out millions of jobs.”Ms. Bellace said:

“One would hope the government would be looking at this very closely so we are prepared for the big changes ahead.”

Suniva and SolarWorld: Saving American companies may cost jobs

As we have reported here at Solar Tribune, bankrupt American solar cell manufacturer Suniva as well as SolarWorld are looking for the relief from the Federal Trade Commission and the Trump administration from Chinese manufacturers of solar panels who have flooded American markets with panels at prices too low for U.S. manufacturers to compete. Suniva filed a petition with the Trade Commission seeking “… a recommendation to the President of four years of relief of an initial duty rate on cells of $0.40/watt, along with an initial floor price on modules of $0.78/watt.”

Economic analysis by law firm Mayer Brown on behalf of Suniva and SolarWorld finds that imposing new tariffs on solar products made outside of America will result in a net increase of at least 114,800 across all segments of the U.S. solar industry. However, only those on the payroll of the litigants actually believe this bit of fiction.

According to an emailed statement by Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA):

“The notion that doubling the price of solar panels would somehow increase demand and create jobs is preposterous. Additionally, SEIA has spoken with dozens of manufacturers in the supply chain who ardently oppose this petition because the projected decline in demand will force them to lay off workers. SEIA’s members know what impact this will have on their ability to produce jobs; companies working in the solar industry today have been clear that Suniva’s sought-after remedy will be devastating to the American solar industry.”

President Trump has repeatedly stated that he wants to use tariffs against the Chinese and others to encourage American manufacturing. It would come as no surprise to see the President take action in the case that would fulfill his promise to American manufacturers, while slamming the brakes on solar, seriously damaging an industry he has always seen as an enemy. We can only hope that the President’s economic advisors will prevent him from making a decision that could cost thousands of jobs.

Hurricanes, Infrastructure, Climate Change and Jobs

The recent destruction of Texas refineries by Hurricane Harvey is just one example of the need for new and modernized energy infrastructure in the US. Whether you believe that the unprecedented destruction is the result of rising sea levels due to climate change, short-sighted zoning policies or lack of corporate responsibility, the fact remains that the system for managing energy resources has simply become outdated, and in some cases, hazardous to humans as well as the environment. It’s time to make radical changes. Disrupting the status quo can be difficult for some aging industries to cope with, but one of the pluses is the new opportunities that change can bring to workers.

Like it or not, there is no going back in time, and the era of fossil fuels is coming to an end. So is the era of black lung, mine collapses, and oil spills. Distributed generation of solar reduces the need for expanded transmission lines and puts workers and technology in direct contact with the consumers. While automation may reduce the need for workers on the factory floor, the installation, management, and maintenance of electrical generation through clean, locally produced solar will continue to grow, powering the American economy into the future.


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