Coal Miners’ Futures in Renewable Energy

Exclusive: President Trump has scored political points by touting coal-mining jobs, but he could create more real jobs in coal country by recognizing the potential for renewable-energy jobs, says Jonathan Marshall.

By Jonathan Marshall

If President Trump wants to earn a rare legislative victory and take political credit for reviving hard-hit regions of rural America, he should take a close look at how one Kentucky coal company is creating jobs.

A “solar farm” with rows of solar panels.

Berkeley Energy Group this month announced plans to put coal miners back to work by building the largest solar project in Appalachia on top of a closed mountaintop strip mine near the town of Pikeville. The Eastern Kentucky coal company is partnering with the Environmental Defense Fund, which has helped develop 9,000 megawatts of renewable energy, to bring jobs and clean energy to the region.

Mining employment in the area has plummeted from more than 14,000 jobs in 2008 to fewer than 4,000 today, owing to mine automation, competition from natural gas, and environmental controls on dirty coal emissions.

Even if Trump’s administration and Congress roll back clean air and water rules, most experts agree that coal-mining jobs are not coming back, particularly in Appalachia where production costs are relatively high.

But there is vast potential for the region to reclaim its ravaged landscapes for use in generating solar energy, if federal policy continues to offer incentives. Solar resources in Kentucky, for instance, are favorable enough to power nearly 1,000 homes for every two acres of solar panels.

Reimagining Coal Country

Writing last year in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, West Virginia solar entrepreneur Dan Conant wrote, “Our people have given sweat, blood, tears and lives to help build and power America. Reimagining ourselves not as a coal state, but as an energy state — including solar and wind — is critical if we are going to continue powering America. All we need is imagination (and a little encouragement and support) as millennial West Virginians lead the way into the future.”

The run-down PIX Theatre sign reads “Vote Trump” on Main Street in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota. July 15, 2016. (Photo by Tony Webster Flickr)

Such visions are still a tough sell in many conservative communities, but many “red” states, whose politicians disdain environmental protection and deny the threat of global climate disruption, are learning to appreciate solar energy. North Carolina, Arizona, Utah, Georgia and Texas rank among the top 10 states for solar electric capacity. Together, their photovoltaic cells power more than a million homes.

In Florida, the state’s largest utility just announced plans to add nearly 2,100 megawatts of new solar capacity over the next seven years while shutting down dirty and expensive coal plants. By 2023, it expects to generate four times more energy from solar than from coal and oil combined.

At the same time, the solar industry is sending out more and more paychecks across rural America. Texas alone supports about 9,400 jobs from its solar industry. Nationally, the solar industry added 51,000 jobs last year and now employs over a quarter million people, more than three times as many as the coal industry. Solar jobs are attractive, paying a median wage of $26 an hour for installers.

Wind Sweeping Down the Plains

Wind energy is another big job engine that appeals to pragmatic conservatives who care more about the economy than the environment. More than three-quarters of Republican congressional districts have operational wind energy projects or active wind-related manufacturing facilities.

A ‘wind farm” with wind turbines.

Texas, Iowa, and Oklahoma are the three top states for installed wind generation capacity, beating out former industry leader California. Many other red states, like Montana, Nebraska, and Wyoming, have immense untapped potential for low-cost wind generation.

Power Company of Wyoming is building the largest wind project in the country, with a capacity of up to 3,000 megawatts. Montana is also receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in new wind investments. No wonder: a typical wind project in that state supplies electricity at 4.7 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to 6.8 cents from coal-fired generation.

Rock-ribbed Republican ranchers and farmers enjoy the income they earn from leasing space to turbines while continuing to use their land. In Texas, the wind industry employs more than 22,000 people and pays more than $60 million a year to lease holders. Those facts can be appreciated even by politicians who don’t care that Texas wind energy avoids carbon dioxide emissions equal to 8.3 million cars on the road.

Nationwide, employment in the wind industry topped 100,000 for the first time last year. The industry added jobs at nine times the rate of the overall economy. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the fastest growing occupation in the country is wind turbine technician, with a median wage of $51,000 a year.

Wind now supplies 5.5 percent of all electricity in the United States, contrary to President Trump’s ill-informed claim that “for the most part they (wind turbines) don’t work.” Wind is now one of the lowest cost sources of electricity, even without federal subsidies, according to newly released estimates by the Department of Energy.

And contrary to Trump’s complaint that solar is “so expensive,” energy from the sun is now cheaper than new coal or nuclear power. As a result, nearly two-thirds of new U.S. generation capacity in each of the last two years used renewable technologies.

Clean Jobs for Trump

Even if President Trump doesn’t yet get it, his Energy Secretary, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, and his Interior Secretary, former Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke, both seem to quietly appreciate the growing potential of renewable energy. Perhaps they can educate the President, and persuade him to reap big political gains by promoting clean jobs along with clean energy in rural and rust-belt America.

Former Governor Rick Perry of Texas speaking at the Iowa Republican Party’s 2015 Lincoln Dinner at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa. May 16, 2015. (Flickr Gage Skidmore)

Rather than eliminating funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission, for example, Trump could steer more of its resources into clean energy training and investment programs. A study published last year by scholars at Michigan Technological University and Oregon State University showed 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.”

Trump could also ramp up funding for the Solar Training Network, established last year by The Solar Foundation with White House support to “improve access to solar training, resources, and careers” and “increase the quality and diversity of the solar workforce and establish nationally consistent training standards.”

In line with Trump’s commitment to rebuilding U.S. manufacturing and competing with China, he could also redouble successful Energy Department programs to support research and development on cutting-edge technologies for solar and wind generation, energy storage, and power grid management.

Such proposals, coming from President Obama, earned widespread Republican scorn. Coming from Trump, they could create a major realignment in Congress by forging an alliance of Democrats with pragmatic Red State legislators who see where the new jobs are.

It can be done; in conservative Wyoming, a leading coal state, legislators recently crushed proposals to impose higher taxes on wind energy. President Trump just needs to follow through for once on his grand promises to blue-collar voters, rather than continuing to act like just another traditional Republican pawn of the fossil fuel industry.

Jonathan Marshall is author of “Dangerous Denial of Global Warming,” “Team Trump Ponders Climate ‘Engineering’,” and “U.S. Media’s Global Warming Denialism.”

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31 comments for “Coal Miners’ Futures in Renewable Energy

  1. Michael
    April 22, 2017 at 8:44 pm

    Great article!

    There has been a saying going around for a long time that the energy companies do not like solar because they cannot own the sun.

    Well, it now appears they can.

    • Zachary Smith
      April 22, 2017 at 9:16 pm

      Given the history of these characters, I wonder about their real motives. Have their bean counters decided that planting Solar Farms is cheaper than going through the motions with “land restoration” with real trees?

  2. Zachary Smith
    April 22, 2017 at 9:13 pm

    Two stories only 4 years apart.

    May 12, 2013
    We have pushed atmospheric CO2 levels to 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in human existence.

    April 21, 2017
    We Just Breached the 410 PPM Threshold for CO2.
    Carbon dioxide has not reached this height in millions of years

    Climate is going to hell faster than anybody supposed, and it’s becoming a snowball effect.

    I believe I’ve mentioned my “Easter Flowers” – this year first ones bloomed 5 weeks before Easter, and the last one was gone two weeks before that Sunday. In my part of Indiana there really wasn’t a winter. Whenever I was out I never saw anybody in a proper winter coat – probably because they’re not needed anymore.

    I’m still keeping my “climate denier” list, and try to examine it every now and then. I see no need at all to knowingly interact with such Gaeacidal types.

    • RPDC
      April 23, 2017 at 8:52 pm

      There’s been almost no warming in North America, and none in the past 20 years. There’s even been some long-term cooling in the Southeastern US. http://climate.ncsu.edu/secc_edu/images/setemp_trend.png

      Are you in the EU?

      Btw – your Easter Flowers are presumably C4 plants, which means that they’d go the way of the dodo if CO2 went sub-200. Their ideal world is 1000-1500 ppm CO2.

      • David Smith
        April 24, 2017 at 12:31 pm

        RPDC, every word of your comment is a nuckleheaded lie.

    • backwardsevolution
      April 24, 2017 at 1:28 am

      Zachary – not in my neck of the woods. This has been the coldest winter I can remember in a long, long time, a winter like we used to have when I was a kid.

      • David Smith
        April 24, 2017 at 12:45 pm

        In my neck of the woods(SW Ontario) we have seen massive climate change beginning in 2000, and getting worse every year. We now have little or no winter, we have summer temps in October, and in August 2015&2016 we had two weeks of 45C temps(that’s 115F!!!!) that’s Sahara Desert temps!!!. That bogus “coldest winter in decades” meme is spread by the MSM. Pure unadulterated mind control, but its working, people are denying reality, and yacking mind control memes from the internet

  3. Bill Bodden
    April 22, 2017 at 10:44 pm

    One of the better jobs for coal miners in Kentucky is to work on getting rid of Mitch McConnell.

  4. Stephen Sivonda
    April 22, 2017 at 10:45 pm

    I’m surprised …being the first one to comment on this subject. This is all good news , and considering that Earth day is near it’s heartening that so many “Red” states are jumping on the renewables concept. As for the president…. I hope several of those governors have a talk with him and get those training funds restored. If Trump wants to cut budget for anything…the Big Oil subsidies are a good place to start.

  5. evelync
    April 22, 2017 at 11:11 pm

    if only the fossil fuel industry were required to include external costs in their balance sheet – namely the cost to the environment and peoples’ health of operating their business – there would be an even more balanced comparison of renewable to fossil fuel energy.

    Thank you for this excellent piece Jonathan Marshall!

  6. john wilson
    April 23, 2017 at 4:52 am

    The real problem with renewable energy sources such wind and solar, is storage. There has to be someone out there who can invent batteries that are relatively small but can store large amounts of power. The electric car really sums it all up. You might get a hundred miles or so from one charge, but after that its back to the charging station for 5 hours or more. Plus you have the huge weight of the batteries which only have a fairly short life span and cost the earth to replace. Of course, solar and wind power etc can take the load of the fossil fuel generators for a short time which must reduce the use of fossil fuel burning. If the break though in electric storage ever comes about, I think fossil fuel generation disappear quite quickly.

    • Zachary Smith
      April 23, 2017 at 1:10 pm

      Perhaps you haven’t heard of the Tesla Gigafactory which has already started full production in Nevada.

      www*en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gigafactory_1

      The mere fact that this is mass production will greatly reduce costs. And your range figure for electric automobiles seems a bit low – even Tesla’s cheapest Model S claims 208 miles driving distance. That is no issue at all for any kind of commuting, but people wanting to take off from Indianapolis to Atlanta might need a slight modification. All the car maker would need to do would be to add a small internal combustion engine powering an equally small electrical generator. The earliest models would of course use fossil fuel, but there is no reason at all that manufactured gasoline couldn’t replace it at any time. Take carbon dioxide, water, and an energy input from solar/wind generation, and the net effect on the climate is zero. This manufactured fuel could be a backup in homes as well in the highly unlikely event the entire continent of North America had a long stretch of sub-par generation. There is no reason enormous backups of synthetic fuel couldn’t be held in reserve for the public utilities which were retained.

      Recent news has covered a potential breakthrough in batteries.

      www*finance.yahoo.com/news/latest-lithium-battery-too-good-150000943.html

      Incombustible, three times the capacity of current lithium batteries, charging time of minutes, and the possibility of replacing the lithium with much cheaper sodium.

      In any event, storage is great, but if the US power grid is modernized, then it’s not a critical factor. Somewhere in North America the wind is blowing, and the only issue is getting the generated electricity from There to Here.

      I can see a massive Human Die-Off coming if climate change continues to snowball. Altering my way of life a little bit seems to be a very small cost to prevent that event.

      • April 24, 2017 at 7:59 am

        Fossil corporations gameplan is to stop renewables by blocking new transmission lines.

  7. Peter Loeb
    April 23, 2017 at 6:11 am

    PROMISES…?

    Jonathan Marshall assumes that he is referring to decision-
    makers who make sense. The President made (admittedly
    campaign) promises.

    I may be mistaken but I think the suffering unemployed miners
    dream of the “good ole” days of work in mining to
    return.

    The result will in all probablility be 1) no new or rennovated
    mines except for “show” (photo ops)

    2) after so-called “tax reform”, increased profits for the owners and less
    to no regjulation.

    Investment in assets with poor to no future are hard to sell
    to investors. If not impossible.

    Administration will claim that private enterprise and the
    market will “efficiently” solve all problems etc. etc.
    They will NOT pay for workers with decent salaries.
    (The “market” always solves , they say….)

    (Remember that after the Reagan reform of 1981: poor
    little corporations like GENERAL ELECTRIC paid not one
    penny in taxes. Legally!)

    In general private investment does not provide
    jobs (as claimed). It can (and probably will) provide
    the extremely wealthy with more and more wealth/profits/
    loopholes.

    (So called “domestic spending’ will probably be cut to
    pay for the military we don’t need and provide a basis
    for cutting Social Security and other programs even more.
    Goodbye “entitlements”.

    Happy CEO’s and Managers will back Trump
    in 2020 with unbridled joy!

    —Peter Loeb, Boston, MAQ, USA

  8. chris moffatt
    April 23, 2017 at 8:54 am

    If one does the arithmetic (no Virginia it isn’t math) one finds that in Kentucky average annual incoming solar radiation ~ 4500Wm^2 with a low in December of ~ 2800 and high in August ~ 5600. Assuming a 2-acre patch covered 9/10ths by PV panels (you need some space between them for maintenance purposes – cleaning, replacing faulty or broken panets etc) and assuming 50% efficiency of the panels and powering 1000 homes you get in December ~ 350W/hrs/month. This is not enough to be worth anyone’s while especially as this power is only available from PVs for a few hours per day. In summer the available power is about doubled but still not enough. Absent some reasonable-cost, large-scale power storage method PV power is not going to be a solution to the power problem and will just continue to be itself a problem to grid operators everywhere.

    Another aspect of renewables is that they only approach the numbers of traditional power producers because of large government subsidies and preferential feed-in tariffs. These subsidies appear to be the major reason investors, including coal companies, are interested in such projects. Take away subsidies, as the UK Government has just announced, and interest in these schemes plummets because they are no longer profitable. If these schemes were really as rosy as their promoters would have us believe then the coal companies would be using their own money and training their own workforce (as they have done in the past). But that doesn’t happen, does it?

    Before bulldozing ahead into “renewable energy” boondoggles I would advise anyone interested to delve into the current state of the German power supply industry, currently the second most expensive in Europe at ~ 29eurocents/KWhr and its recent history of how it got to this point. The same fate awaits us if we do not approach this much more intelligently than we have to date.

    • gcduffy
      April 23, 2017 at 11:53 am

      Thank you for shedding some realism on the subject. Your point about subsidies is all too frequently ignored while gushing about the mythical qualities of renewables. Also ignored is the massive destruction of property by solar and the incredible slaughter of wild birds and bats by wind power. Not to mention the destruction of habitat by transmission lines.

      • Zachary Smith
        April 23, 2017 at 8:29 pm

        I’ve got to assume this is some kind of joke which I just don’t “get”.

        Subsidies? The renewables get hardly any at all. My link says oil and gas are the worst, but I’m personally going to stick with nuclear power as being the most protected and coddled unless I see some real evidence to the contrary. The fake insurance scheme which allows high-priced and dangerous nuclear to operate at all is a priceless jewel of a gift which isn’t really matched by any of the others. Not even oil and gas.

        www*cleantechnica.com/2016/02/25/the-myth-about-renewable-energy-subsidies/

        Massive destruction of property by solar? WTH? You understand that this very essay is talking about putting solar collectors on some of the worst waste land on the planet, don’t you? Deserts don’t typically contain a whole lot of “property” to destroy either. If somebody does put a solar farm on some good grasslands, all that has to be done is to mount the collectors high enough that cattle can graze under them.

        Slaughter of wild birds? That sounds like something Rush “druggie” Limpaugh would be saying. Want to know the worst bird killer? Feral or turned-loose house Cats! Their bird victims number in the billions. Next? Building windows kill birds by the hundreds of millions. A few years ago I heard a loud “thump” on a large living room window and went outside to investigate. Two of the most beautiful red birds I’ve ever seen (not cardinals) lay dead on the ground. Now that window is permanently adorned with decorative stick-ons which have prevented another such event. #3 bird killer? Cars – low hundreds of millions. Look at the chart yourself – wind turbines are way out there in position #8.

        www*treehugger.com/renewable-energy/north-america-wind-turbines-kill-around-300000-birds-annually-house-cats-around-3000000000.html

        www*journals.plos.org/plosone/article/file?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0107491&type=printable

        Destruction of habitat by transmission lines. In the parts of the nation I’ve visited, that is the silliest statement of them all. Rush? Hannity? or some other right-wing blowhard shill for Big Coal/Gas/Oil/Nuclear?

        • RPDC
          April 23, 2017 at 8:55 pm

          I’ve seen you make some rather salient and insightful posts regarding foreign policy. I suspect, however, that your hard science background is somewhat more limited.

    • BannanaBoat
      April 24, 2017 at 8:05 am

      Funny how myself and all my neighbors are doing quite well for thirty years and counting on photovoltaics. Do not forget to add externalized costs of fossil fuels to find the true cost.

  9. mike k
    April 23, 2017 at 9:11 am

    The real answer to our power problems is less power for fewer people leading simpler lifestyles. Oh sorry, I said the forbidden word less. And we might stop squandering so much energy on war. Oops! I did it again, I almost said the forbidden word peace.

    • Zachary Smith
      April 23, 2017 at 10:58 pm

      With fewer people less power isn’t an issue. For unmarried girls and women my favorite solution is to pay them not to get pregnant. For married ones, the first child gets a shower of gold – every sort of incentive nations around the world have dreamed up to increase population would be awarded to the parent or parents. The second child is more or less neutral with regards to rewards for the parents. The third child erases all the rewards for the first one, and any more children get expensive.

      So long as the Power Elites can simultaneously control the Media and possess the ability to start wars at will, I don’t see any solution on the “peace” front.

      • OI
        April 24, 2017 at 11:38 am

        Shorter Zach: Punish women for not being properly owned by a man before they exercise their rights to have children.

        • Zachary Smith
          April 24, 2017 at 12:36 pm

          I said that? Wow.

          I’m in favor of responsible child-bearing. If a female well off enough to make the old phrase “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” a valid one, I don’t give a solitary damn about her marital situation. But if she isn’t, then having children gets into irresponsible behavior. Her behavior begins to mimic the brood-parasite birds who trick other species into raising their offspring.

          My concern is about the welfare of both the children and the Big Picture of the world at large.

          Contraception research ought to be massively funded, and the products of this research ought to be made available to everybody at nominal charges. If the Pope doesn’t like it, to Hades with him. The chances of him or any of his male Cardinal/Bishop/Priest underlings getting pregnant is really, really close to zero.

    • backwardsevolution
      April 24, 2017 at 1:46 am

      mike k – yep. Are we stupid, or what? If most people had their way, they’d have the word “less” removed from the English language. Absolute insanity.

  10. April 23, 2017 at 9:56 pm

    Geothermal energy development requires the drilling and tunneling skill which could come from the oil or coal industry with a federal retraining program. Old oil wells produce lots of hot water when stimulated to extend their life. Fracking techniques are perfect for making geothermal wells.
    Ormat has been profitably developing geothermal power for decades. It runs day and night, providing baseload power.
    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ZJs1wLNgyAzK2W1U85_WF9zv2kF7sHQnQtx7UG4nsJQ/edit

    • Zachary Smith
      April 23, 2017 at 10:50 pm

      Geothermal has never been in my viewscreen, mainly because it is hardly ever mentioned in the books and magazines I read. From the wiki:

      In the twelve months through April 2013, geothermal energy generated 16.9 million megawatt-hours, 0.41% of total US electricity.[1]

      I understand the process is expensive to develop, and the same wiki says the environmental effects sometimes aren’t minor ones. It’s my guess that these and other factors have combined to keep it an extremely minor player in the energy field.

  11. Bernie
    April 24, 2017 at 10:34 am

    I believe that solar and wind have their benefits (and their detriments) but the planet and civilization will require a robust source of clean safe cheap energy. Fusion doesn’t appear to be on the horizon but safe nuclear, using Lead Cooled Fast Reactors does look appealing. Russia is building a number of these units is India. This is the immediate future.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead-cooled_fast_reactor

    • Zachary Smith
      April 24, 2017 at 12:47 pm

      Apparently the only lead-cooled reactors ever built were on the Soviet Alpha submarines. Every one of those has been decommissioned.

      No doubt this design is better than water-cooling, but you still have all the other issues of exposure to earthquakes, tsunamis, terrorists, idiots, and bean counters. Not to mention the exact same issues with forever-storage of the radioactive wastes.

      Nuclear power is insanely dangerous and expensive. I’ll grant that it’s to be preferred to the entire world dying from Global Warming, but fortunately we have – using your words – “clean safe cheap” wind and solar available.

      There is no way under heaven any conceivable nuclear reactor is going to be cheaper than wind/solar if all the risk/cost factors are considered.

  12. Herman
    April 25, 2017 at 8:02 am

    All the while I read the article I kept thinking of all the money poured into defense and how that money could be put to use for so many things. Public spending, including defense, create jobs-the trick being to channel that into projects that raise our standard of living. Ask any congressman what he likes about Defense, and in a candid moment, it will be the money funneled into his district. Ask any senator, it will be how much to my state and my potential voters.

    Renewable energy investments, of course. Rapid transit, water and sewer line replacement, roads and bridges, modernization of our communication networks, and many other things could all be financed from the wasteful and destructive defense industry, still leaving a viable defense.

    Easier said than done, of course But new thinking about how to make America and the world safer and use our wealth more wisely is still a possibility.

  13. theswan
    April 25, 2017 at 9:34 am

    Finally this good idea gets used and written about. I have been wondering when someone in the energy sector would use the ravaged mountain tops to array a morning to evening look at the sun. It seems a no brainer to not to use this naturally curved landscape as well as their scarred tops to the advantage to collect the suns rays.
    Go you coal miners, show us all what you are capable of. I believe that you will like to work better than being stuck down under breathing that black stuff.

  14. Bill Goldman
    April 26, 2017 at 8:54 pm

    Interesting analysis. Wind and solar provide lower cost power than coal or nuclear without leaking noxious gases and environmental destruction. Only Trump don’t get it. He lets his egomaniacal nature get in the way.

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