The future of the coal industry is anything but bright, but a new study in the journal Energy Economics offers hope for coal workers for high-quality employment in the rapidly expanding solar photovoltaic industry.
A combination of factors have led to a decline in profitability for coal-fired power plants in both the near and long term in the U.S. This reduced profitably is driving a steep decline in coal plants. For example, the U.S. Energy Information Administration notes that between 2010 and 2012, 14 GW of coal-fired capacity was retired and that a total of 60 GW will be retired by 2020. What these dry government numbers leave out is the effect on coal workers and their families as one major coal company after another files for bankruptcy. Although coal investors can simply call their brokers to move their money to more profitable industries, coal workers are left with pink slips and mortgages.
Fortunately, there is one energy industry sector growing at an incredible rate - solar photovoltaic technology that converts sunlight directly into electricity.
And they are hiring.
Some might question if the solar industry would welcome workers from a historical rival. Tom Kimbis, the interim president of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), puts that question to rest. He says "We welcome them with open arms. Every day, we're seeing talented men and women joining our ranks from every sector of the American workforce, including the coal industry."
Christopher Turek, a Director at Solar Energy International (SEI) agrees, "we welcome them with open arms to come get re-trained in the growing solar energy sector. The solar energy tent is a big tent approach and we welcome everyone."
Since the rapid decrease in the costs of solar photovoltaic technology, solar deployment is rising rapidly. Bloomberg reports the American solar industry had another record first quarter, but this time accounting for the majority of new power generation from any source for the first time. This is creating a lot of jobs in the U.S. solar industry, which is bringing on new workers 12 times faster than the overall economy. As of November 2015, the solar industry employs 208,859 solar workers, which is already larger than the roughly 150,000 jobs remaining in the coal industry. The new study found that the growth of solar-related employment could absorb the layoffs in the coal industry in the next 15 years. Kimbis points out, "these aren't just punch-the-clock jobs, these are careers."
How can a coal worker get a solar job?
The new study provides an analysis of the needs to retrain current coal workers for solar photovoltaic industry employment in the U.S. The current coal industry positions were determined, the skill set evaluated and the salaries tabulated. For each type of coal position, the closest equivalent PV position was determined trying to match current coal salaries and then the re-training time and investment was quantified. Turek points out, "One interesting opportunity for many of these coal miners is that many of them have transferable skill sets. These skill sets range from mechanical and electrical expertise and extends all the way to their confidence in working in a highly technical field with a strong focus on safety. Coal miners have a strong focus on safety while working in hazardous work environments and the solar industry needs these safety focused individuals who can bring that same level of focus to the solar industry".
The appendices will be most useful to current coal workers that can look up their existing job to see what some of the best potential fits for them might be and the training necessary. It should be noted, however, that the costs and specific schools used as examples -are only that - there are low cost options for solar retraining in all the individual States, which coal workers may be able to use while still employed in the coal sector.
Turek explains that this is not a purely academic study. "SEI is headquartered in the heart of the declining Western Colorado coal country - this hits home for us. Many of our neighbors are losing their jobs as more and more coal mines close down. The good news is that they have the solar industry's leading technical training school right here in their backyard."
Kimbis points out that the requirements will depend on where you live: "Some states do require employees to obtain solar-specific licenses or certifications." He recommends learning as much as you can about the industry and the specific policies at play in your state.
Turek continues, "There are challenges for anyone wanting to get into this field as it is a highly dynamic and changing industry with new technologies coming to market all the time. Training is key and getting that training from a respected school is also crucial to overcome the challenge of jumping into a new career field."
The results of the study show that a relatively minor investment in retraining would allow the vast majority of coal workers to switch to solar-related positions even in the event of the elimination of the coal industry."With some training in solar-specific technologies, workers can move into sustainable, well-paying careers in solar." Kimbis explains. Training times depend on type of job and prior experience.
As Turek points out, "Unfortunately, politics has also gotten hold of this conversation and in an election year that creates a challenge. Electrons and the photovoltaic effect don't have a political affiliation. The sun just sends us photons everyday and the more we can do to harvest that power and convert it to usable clean energy to keep driving our country and the world forward - the better we ALL will be in the long run no matter your politics. Here at SEI - we don't care if someone sees themselves as a republican - democrat - conservative - or progressive - we just want to share our knowledge and expertise about renewable energy with anyone who is interested."
Kimbis concludes, "No matter what state you're located in, we welcome you. SEIA can help put you in touch with a hiring employer."