Photovoltaic solar power field at Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee
Here’s a little quiz on a topic much discussed over the past couple of years: jobs.
How many people work in the U.S. coal industry? Not just miners, but office staff, too.
And, how many people work for solar-energy companies in the U.S.?
Coal mining was a mainstay of the energy industry in the U.S. and around the world, used to generate electricity for more than a century.
In the U.S., according to Department of Energy employment data, about 160,000 people worked in the coal industry last year. Only 77,000 of them were miners; the rest were office workers.
By comparison, solar companies employ about 370,000 people, most of them as installers and maintenance workers.
Coal’s share of U.S. electricity generation, 1949-2015 [U.S. Energy Information Administration data]
The wind power industry adds another 102,000 jobs, by the way.
So renewable energy provides almost three times as many jobs to U.S. workers as the coal industry does.
Moreover, jobs in clean energy are growing at a steady pace—20 percent annually for solar jobs since 2012—and have for several years. The coal industry, not so much.
Under certain circumstances, large-scale solar energy projects and wind farms are now cost-competitive with even the newest and most efficient natural-gas electricity generating plants.
This has radically altered the economics of the electric utility industry, which is used to planning cycles for its generation plants of as long as 50 years.
The resulting questions are hard: in which kinds of energy should utilities invest capital, and—given the urgency of climate change, carbon-reduction policies in many states, and continued technology improvements—what will provide the cheapest and most reliable power 10, 20, and 30 years from now?
Coal, by Flicker user oatsy40 (Used Under CC License)
But it’s clear that the jobs for working-class Americans are not in coal. Given increasing automation in coal mining using the controversial “mountaintop removal” technique, nor is any growth in coal usage likely to lead to notable job increases.
The policies of the current Administration have now begun to worry some of the solar workers, as a recent article in The Washington Post points out.
It includes interviews with workers who voted for President Donald Trump but are now nervous about his administration’s policies in support of fossil fuels and its elimination of climate-change efforts, specifically his announcement of a future U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Pact.
Many energy analysts feel that the momentum behind clean power is now unstoppable, and that while Trump policies may slow its adoption in the U.S., the rest of the world will continue apace.
But the jobs in each sector are clearly on the side of renewables, which makes Trump’s focus on coal mining all the more puzzling from an administration that touts blue-collar job creation as a cornerstone of its agenda.
Even the British, whose coal-mining powered the start of the Industrial Revolution from 1750 onward, proudly celebrated their first day since 1882 in which no coal was used to generate electricity.
The U.S., it appears, has a way to go yet.
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