Retrain all remaining coal workers for great jobs in clean energy

solar-jobsClean energy is a booming sector, with the solar industry adding new jobs 12 times faster than the national job growth rate. That’s great news for our country and our climate as we transition to a 21st century economy that runs on renewable energy, not dirty fossil fuels. Given the existential threat of global warming, America should be pushing as aggressively as possible for clean energy anyway. If policymakers smartly take advantage of this trend, it would also be fantastic news for workers in one particular industry that’s been suffering from a decades-long demise: coal.

The potential of this match-up, between coal workers who’ll soon need good jobs and the good jobs to open in the globally important solar industry, is the core premise behind a new academic study in Energy Economics. According to a Harvard Business Review article written by one of the research authors:

Our study found that this growth of solar-related employment could benefit coal workers, by easily absorbing the coal-industry layoffs over the next 15 years and offering full-time careers.

Our results show that there is a wide variety of employment opportunities in the solar industry, and that the annual pay is attractive at all levels of education, with even the lowest skilled jobs paying a living wage (e.g., janitors in the coal industry could increase their salaries by 7% by becoming low-skilled mechanical assemblers in the solar industry).

The results of the study show that a relatively minor investment ($180 million to $1.8 billion, based on best and worst case scenarios) in retraining would allow the vast majority of U.S. coal workers to switch to solar-related positions. Of course, training times depend on type of job and prior experience.

That is, as audacious the goal might sound — retrain all coal workers for solar — it’s eminently do-able and affordable. In fact, as this reporter noted in Green Tech Media, “[f]or many coal companies, even those filing for bankruptcy, the cost of retraining all employees would be less than a year’s pay for the CEO.” Moreover, the United States wastes billions on fossil fuel subsidies — $37.5 billion annually, by one estimate. A small slice of that amount would be enough to ensure that American coal workers aren’t left behind.

The goal raises questions and caveats, of course, particularly the need for federal, state, and local governments and the private sector to figure out how to bring the clean energy jobs to the places that need them. But they are possible to overcome — certainly by the country that built the national highway system and went to the moon. We just first need to set the vision.

For more information, see “What If All U.S. Coal Workers Were Retrained to Work in Solar?,” Harvard Business Review (2016); “One Year of Coal CEO Pay Could Retrain Every US Miner to Work in the Solar Industry,” Green Tech Media (2016); “Careers in Solar Power,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2016); “New initiative to help coal workers transition to clean economy jobs,” Green Biz (2015); and “Solar Energy Jobs Growing By Leaps and Bounds,” Climate Central (2015).