A new study out of Duke University has shown that during the four years following the 2008 recession, the US coal industry lost more than 49,000 jobs, while at the same time the natural gas, solar, and wind industries across the country created nearly four times as many jobs as coal lost.
There are inherent stories involved in this research that need to be acknowledged, however. While on the surface, it appears to be a good sign for the renewable energy industry that the coal industry is hemorrhaging jobs, the reality is that those numbers represent people, and we cannot crow at their misfortune. However, the flip-side of that is that the coal industry is suffering, and in turn renewable energy industries like wind and solar — along with natural gas — are flourishing.
“Our study shows it has not been a one-for-one replacement,” said senior author Lincoln Pratson, the Truman and Nellie Semans/Alex Brown & Sons Professor of Earth and Ocean Sciences at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “The counties that were very reliant on the coal industry are now in the most difficult position.”
Counties in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky were both hit very hard when coal began its decline, whereas the Northeast, Southwest, Midwest, and West of the US saw the largest energy job increases. The Appalachia region, Uinta Basin of Utah and Colorado, and parts of the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming also saw massive job losses.
To estimate the changes in electricity employment, Pratson and fellow research analyst Drew Haerer examine data relating to both direct and indirect job growth and loss for each energy generating industry. (Note: data relating to the solar and wind industries were provided by the industries themselves.)
Interestingly, despite the massive swing between job loss in the coal industry and job creation elsewhere, there is very little geographic overlap, and this comes down to several factors, says Pratson. “The areas where a lot of coal is mined in Appalachia, for example, are very rugged and heavily forested — not easy places to set up solar panels or wind farms.”
There are differences in the availability of state incentives for renewable energy as well, noted Haerer. “States with incentives have more growth,” he said. “The southeast is incentive-free, and there is almost no development of green energy there compared to other regions.”