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What’s next for miners?

by Kyle Schultz

Despite Trump’s assurances that the “coal industry is back,” the future for coal in the United States isn’t looking bright. The average coal miner age is 48, and with declining costs of renewable energy, cheap natural gas production, and increasing automation, jobs in the coal industry will continue to dwindle. (Check out our previous post for more information on the decline of coal.)

 Annual number employed coal miners in the United States. Source:  US Bureau of Labor Statistics

Annual number employed coal miners in the United States. Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics

While the decline of the coal industry is cause for celebration for many, those involved in the coal industry face the loss of their livelihoods. The most impacted areas are amongst the most impoverished in the United States; West Virginia ranks 49th in per capita income and 50th in life expectancy, and in 2013 eastern Kentucky, a region heavily reliant on coal, had an unemployment rate of 10.3% compared with the national average of 7.4%.

 Location and density of coal mine operator employees in 2015. Image:  CDC

Location and density of coal mine operator employees in 2015. Image: CDC

In contrast to the dismal outlook on coal, solar power is rapidly growing. From 2015 to 2017 the coal industry lost 18,200 jobs whereas solar jobs saw an increase of 41,412 jobs over the same time period, more than double the amount of jobs lost in the coal industry! Could the burgeoning solar industry save the livelihoods of those communities dependent on coal? One study (1) estimated that it would cost between 180 million and 1.8 billion dollars to retrain workers holding coal-specific jobs (notably less than the proposed annual coal subsidies by the Trump administration in 2017).

Although the switch from coal to solar has a certain poetic justice and seems feasible when viewed at the national scale, merely paying attention to numbers overlooks human factors that complicate this narrative. For example, the growth of solar jobs is not necessarily occurring in the same location as coal jobs, and miners might be unwilling to leave their homes and communities.

 Percent growth in solar jobs from 2015 to 2016. Image:  Solar Foundation

Percent growth in solar jobs from 2015 to 2016. Image: Solar Foundation

In addition, coal is a large part of Appalachian culture, history, and pride, so coal miners may not easily accept the transition to other industries. There are, however, some organizations working to help communities affected by the decline of coal. Coalfield Development works with and within communities to create opportunity through mentorship, education, and employment, and Solar Holler was the first organization in West Virginia to offer solar job training and apprenticeships.

With coal’s downturn and the transition to clean energy, we need to remember that the people most affected by changes are also among the most vulnerable. Coal will not be making a heroic comeback in the US, and while solar can replace some lost coal jobs, it is not a silver bullet. Coal communities face a difficult transition, but groups like Coalfield Development and Solar Holler that are working to find alternatives and provide training to coal workers serve as a reminder of the power of community action.

(1) Louie EP and Pearce JM (2016) Retraining investment for U.S. transition from coal to solar photovoltaic employment. Energy Economics 57:295-302