“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.”
—John F. Kennedy. Address in the Assembly Hall at the Paulskirche in Frankfurt, June 26 1963
Moving away from a fossil fuel economy will see a change in jobs and needed skills. This is something that occurs anytime there is a cultural change or new technology replacesold. In truth, coal mining jobs have been disappearing for decades due to automation. The process of underground coal mining has become highly mechanized and new methods of mountain top removal are being used when feasible. Modern mining is cheaper, and less labor intensive if sometimes more damaging to the environment.
In 1920 there were about 870,000 coal jobs; in 2010 that number had dropped to 110,000. This drop occurred while the amount of coal mined and exported was actually increasing. We are producing nearly twice as much coal as a generation ago and doing it with far fewer workers. So, regardless of what we do in renewable energy, most coal jobs are never coming back.
And, of course, those jobs are being reduced even more as coal is finding less and less of a market. Power plants and other users of large amounts of energy resources are increasingly turning to methane and clean energy, including wind and solar. These trends are increasing.
But Things are Actually Getting Better
Bleak as that sounds, the overall jobs picture is getting better. Much better. Jobs in renewable energy are increasing rapidly. Rather than a job killer, renewable energy is bringing in more jobs. About 6 times as many people are employed in renewable energy jobs as in coal.7
Fossil fuels procurement is an old technology. New jobs don’t come from maintaining the old, they come from exploring and developing the new. Throughout history, including the industrial revolution, great booms come out of pushes into developing new technology.
The world bank estimated that U.S. Wind and solar creates about 13.5 jobs per million dollars of spending, and that building retrofits - energy efficiency - creates 16.7 jobs per million dollars of spending. This is more than three times the 5.2 jobs per million dollars for oil and natural gas and more than two times the 6.9 jobs per one million dollars for coal.8Worth noting is that a mass transit comes in at a whopping 22.3 jobs per million invested. If jobs are our concern, we know where to invest.
What About the Individuals Who Are Losing Their Jobs?
These, of course, are numbers. They do not address the upheaval in people’s lives. The first energy revolution abandoned many to poverty while generating wealth for others. Hopefully we have the wisdom to not repeat those errors. This seems like a reasonable place for us to use our collective resources through government and smooth the way.
Al Gore, at a Climate Reality Training in March 2017, pointed out that all current US. coal miners could be trained in clean energy careers for an estimated 180 million dollars, which in government terms is next to nothing. Indeed, he suggested that even ten times that much is barely a drop in the bucket. For comparison, a single F-35 fighter jet costs 160 million dollars and we plan to buy 2,443 of them. A wall between the US and our southern neighbors weighs in at between $17 and 35 billion dollars.
Right now, the renewable energy industry is having a hard time finding trained individuals for a lot of the jobs they have. Retraining people for good jobs means they will be paying taxes, probably more than they did before, and not be looking to government services to survive. It will also help ease the way toward a livable world for the future.
The switch to renewable energy is likely to bring far more jobs than those lost. And with forethought and the political will, the pain of the disruption for individuals can be kept to a minimum.