Last year I he looked on the potential of renewables such as solar energy to power the next clean industrial revolution. With the transition to a cleaner, more sustainable world, there are understandable concerns about communities already struggling with post-industrial decline.
Recent studies from the University of Michigan suggests that these jobs can successfully transition to roles in wind and solar. This is significant because the researchers point out that in 2019, coal-fired generators still employed around 80,000 workers across the United States at 250 different plants. The researchers wanted to examine the feasibility of transitioning these jobs to clean energy jobs in each location.
Given the severity of the climate emergency, considerable attention has been paid to the need to transition to cleaner forms of energy. Less attention has been paid to what may happen to people employed in “dirty” sectors such as coal.
“According to EY Europe attractiveness survey Published in May this year, cleantech and renewables ranked just behind the digital economy as Europe’s growth driver for the coming years,” says Julie Linn Teigland, EY EMEIA Area Managing Partner. “But that won’t happen without major investment in skills development. . Business leaders who responded to the survey also cited the presence of a workforce with the right skills and competencies to facilitate sustainability projects as a major factor in choosing a country to invest in.”
The Michigan researchers found that this transition was generally possible even when the new jobs were located within 50 miles of an existing coal plant. However, this will increase the cost of the energy transition, and researchers suggest that a figure of around $83 billion is likely. However, he believes that such costs are manageable and will pay off in the long run.
“These costs are significant on their own, but they are small compared to the annual US energy investment of US$70 billion and the total cost of transitioning the US energy system away from fossil fuels, which is estimated to be US$900 billion by 2030,” the researchers explain.
While these additional costs are not to be sniffed at, researchers believe it is justifiable in terms of helping communities on the front lines of the transition adapt to change.
Decarbonisation of the economy
The investment needed to replace coal with renewables could be supported through an investment tax credit that would only apply to solar or wind projects located near existing coal-fired power stations. In addition, credits would only be available to projects that employ reskilled workers from retiring coal-fired power plants.
With attempts to mitigate climate change requiring significant reductions in carbon emissions, it is inevitable that electricity generation will be among the first areas to be targeted, due to its relatively low cost. Indeed, the switch from coal to gas was one of the main initial steps in reducing emissions worldwide.
So it’s likely that most of the coal-fired power plants that remain in the United States will be phased out over the next decade, with the electricity they generate replaced by low-carbon alternatives. While technologies like solar and wind power have made huge strides in recent years, it still remains somewhat uncertain how feasible it really is to replace coal jobs with renewables.
The study projects that all coal-fired power plants will be phased out by 2030, with workers employed at each plant having to be transferred to renewable energy jobs, along with full replacement of coal-fired power generation as part of the transition. What’s more, jobs must be located within a certain distance from a coal-fired power plant.
Three different distances were tested, exploring 500 miles and 1,000 miles in addition to an eminently more reasonable and practical limit of 50 miles, which would require new solar and wind facilities (and their jobs) to be located so that the plant’s former coal workers would not have to relocate . Of course, this does not apply to the other two distances.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, renewable jobs were found to replace coal jobs for the 500- and 1,000-mile limits, but more importantly, they were also found within the 50-mile limit. The researchers found that most of these jobs would be in operational and maintenance roles, with construction work also playing a significant, albeit minor, role.
“There are many opportunities when it comes to installing solar panels, whether they are electricians or general laborers who will help fit the panels into their installations,” says Harald Överholm, CEO of Solar Alight. “A number of mental skills are also required, such as attention to detail, working independently and in teams, problem solving and working with complex machinery.”
There is also likely to be significant crossover in terms of the people skills required, as solar technicians will be required to communicate with a wide range of people, with the ability to communicate complex topics in an easy-to-understand manner being key, especially alongside the essentials of professionalism and punctuality.
“If you work in coal mining, you’re a practical person who knows how to get things done, which is a valuable trait,” continues Överholm.
While it seems unlikely that coal generation will be completely replaced by investment in renewables, the report provides a degree of optimism that a smoother transition than previously achieved in post-industrial communities is possible. Now it’s up to policymakers to help make sure that happens.