Here in Pennsylvania, over 60 coal-fired generation units have closed within the last two decades and by 2028, all remaining coal-fired power plants in the state are slated to close or convert to natural gas.
A recent study in the journal Nature Communications asked what will happen to these and other fossil fuel workers across the country in the energy transition. Researchers investigated whether fossil fuel workers’ skill sets and geographic locations might match the required skills and locations of new, green energy jobs, like solar, wind and hydro-electricity production.
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“So we focused on essentially two frictions that could prevent a seamless transition from fossil fuel to green jobs. One being skills: Do workers have the right skill sets to do this?” said co-author Michael Atkin, professor at EPFL, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. “The second friction we looked at was geography. Are fossil fuel workers located where these green jobs are and will continue to grow?”
Extrapolating from the location of current green energy power plants and the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2029 employment projections, the researchers predicted where green energy jobs are likely to be in the future without major policy intervention.
They found that fossil fuel workers have similar skills needed for those new jobs, but found little overlap between the location of these future jobs and the location of fossil fuel workers.
“Green energy production depends on regional factors,” said Morgan Frank, an author on the study and assistant professor in the Department of Informatics and Networked Systems at the University of Pittsburgh. “You need a lot of sunlight if you’re going to be a successful solar energy producer. You need wind if you’re going to produce energy with wind,” adding that these regional factors may not overlap well with fossil fuel communities.
For instance, Franks said that given western Pennsylvania’s cloudy days, “it is an unlikely region for solar technology jobs.”
Workers might have to move
The study found that in the absence of major policy interventions that either subsidize fossil fuel workers’ transition to a different industry or bring jobs to fossil fuel communities, workers may have to move to a new location for jobs.
According to U.S. Census data, “historically, [fossil fuel workers] do not travel very far to take advantage of new employment opportunities,” Frank said. “They are not big movers.”
Unemployed miners are already moving to find work, said Erin Bates, the communications director for the United Mine Workers Of America, but that doesn’t help the communities they leave behind.
“These areas are desolate. They’re ghost towns. So, you know, having all these people leave, what happens to the families that are living in those areas?” she said.
How clean energy jobs could come to fossil fuel communities
But workers may not have to leave their communities for green energy jobs, says Sean O’Leary, a senior researcher at the Ohio River Valley Institute.
While he acknowledged that the overlap between green energy production and fossil fuel communities “isn’t great,” he pointed out that “three-quarters of all clean energy jobs are not in power generation, they are in energy efficiency and distributed generation” like local solar panel installation or HVAC maintenance. He said those sectors do overlap well with the locations of fossil fuel communities as they are not dependent on region-specific natural resources.
President Biden’s major climate initiative, the Inflation Reduction Act, promises to grow employment in fossil fuel communities. The IRA includes at least $4 billion in tax credits that could be used to build clean energy manufacturing facilities, among other projects, in regions with closed coal mines or power plants.
A new loan program allocates $5 billion for the Department of Energy to support loan guarantees of up to $250 billion to repurpose or replace shuttered energy infrastructure like replacing closed coal plants with renewable energy.
“The IRA made some great promises and we were highly involved in those promises. We haven’t seen much come to fruition,” said Bates of the UMWA. “We wanted to make sure that if a transition was going to happen…that jobs were preserved in a way that allowed them to easily transition to maybe another field.”
A case for optimism
O’Leary points to Centralia, Washington as a model for job growth in Appalachia. In 2006, Centralia’s largest employer, a strip mine owned by TransAlta, shut down, and other fossil fuel jobs followed.
The company agreed to a payment of $55 million for a transition fund. Centralia created a grants board focusing on projects in energy efficiency, distributed generation, education and employee retraining. Because community members often worked on carrying out these energy efficiency and distributed generation projects (for example, high-efficiency heat pump installations), the grant funding stayed within the local economy while consumers paid less in utility bills.
“That economy has gone through a transition that has been remarkably successful for the last six years since the transition grant program has begun,” O’Leary said. “That economy has added jobs at twice the rate of the U.S. economy, and incomes have grown 50% faster than income growth in the U.S.”
A significant barrier to the implementation of the Centralia model within Appalachia, however, is that “many people in state legislatures view energy efficiency as being threatening to the coal and natural gas industries because they at least theoretically reduce demand for those resources,” he said.
However, O’Leary argued, against the backdrop of skyrocketing utility bills and lagging economic growth throughout much of Appalachia, “I think you begin to realize… economically and environmentally, they’d be way better off to buy clean energy than to make dirty power.”
He added, “It’s a tough message for folks to hear and it’s an even tougher message for many of them to believe.”