Clean Power

Published on April 8th, 2015 | by Joshua S Hill


Coal Jobs Decline As Renewable Jobs Increase

April 8th, 2015 by  

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.

coal-minerThe new research from Duke University, published in the journal Energy Policy, analyses county-by-county the losses and gains in the US electricity sector.

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.”

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I'm a Christian, a nerd, a geek, and I believe that we're pretty quickly directing planet-Earth into hell in a handbasket! I also write for Fantasy Book Review (, and can be found writing articles for a variety of other sites. Check me out at for more.

  • Larry

    Where are all those super intelligent entrepenuers? Why hasn;t Dow Chemical or Monsanto come up with alternative uses for coal other than burning it? It’s a finite resource. If we burn it all now, there will be none left if some better and higher use comes along.

    • Larmion

      We did just that, and then quit doing that.

      Today, most plastics and petro-based products are made using ethylene (C2H4). This is derived from either oil or NG (hence the name ‘petrochemistry’). Other basic ingredients like the BTX series also come from oil refining.

      In the nineteenth century, however, the basic building block was acetylene (C2H2), made from coal. This was called carbochemistry. You can theoretically make every molecule you can with ethylene with acetylene, though the processes involved are different. And those accesory ingredients like BTX? Those are even more abundant in coal tar than in crude oil.

      Apart from Germany, which was cut of from oil during the world wars, no major economy continued to rely on carbochemistry once petrochemistry had come along. Why? Because making plastics and other chemicals from acetylene is more energy-intensive, more dangerous and more dfificult than using ethylene.

    • Coley

      Look up five quarter energy, interesting but I’m not sold, they claim to have successful pilots in Australia and Canada but I can’t find any links!

  • Peter Lymch

    Josh – great article. I think it may be able to use a follow up in regard to what percentage of coal jobs lost in the last 10 years were do to automation and nothing more. I have seen numbers approximating 90% of jobs lost in last 10 years was due to automation – so yes Solar and Wind are impacting coal jobs but the number of jobs left is far smaller and the coal business model is dead or dying…..

    • Coley

      The jobs lost in deep mining due to automation weren’t that many,,the killer was replacing deep mining with opencast mining.

  • The connection between losing jobs in coal and gaining jobs in renewables is discussed in this article:
    I think it makes sense to have coal state governments and the solar industry to get together to try to keep those coal workers employed as coal continues to be phased out over the coming decades.

  • spec9

    Trying save coal jobs at this point is like trying to save jobs in asbestos or leaded gasoline. Let the dying toxic industry die.

    • Larmion

      The difference is that the coal industry employs a much greater number of people. At least as importantly, it tends to do that in areas with few other (relatively) well paid jobs for unskilled workers – and for workers in general.

      Compare to, for example, leaded gasoline. That industry employs fewer people, usually skilled operators, and is concentrated in petrochemical clusters with plenty of other employment opportunities.

      Parts of Europe are still reeling from coal mine closures. It’s not enough to let a toxic and increasingly unprofitable industry die. There needs to be a pathway to different, better jobs.

      RE can be part of the answer, but not all of it. For a start, renewable jobs are more spread out than coal mining jobs, simply because generation itself is spread out across the nation. A coal mine creates hundreds of jobs in a single community. RE businesses might well offer more jobs overall, but at best a few dozen of those will be in that one community.

      Second, renewable energy creates mainly construction jobs. Once a turbine is built, you need very few permanent technicians. Even fewer in a solar farm. The manufacturing side might be a better source of permanent employment, but that requires skilled labor and at least in the case of solar is marginal in the US.

      • JamesWimberley

        Long ago I proposed US coal be nationalized, as the best way to manage its rundown (link). The state-owned coal corporations of France and Britain did a decent job of this: but success was limited, as nobody wants to start a business in blighted mining towns. The American way is just to accept out-migration.

        • Coley

          Don’t know about France,but the closure of the UK mining industry was just slash and burn here in the UK.
          Your certainly right about ” blighted mining towns” though.

          • Shane 2

            Thatcher killed coal and destroyed the economic basis of many communities. There was no gentle landing. Ding dong the witch is dead.

      • Aku Ankka

        Then again, these jobs literally kill many of the workers: some quickly (mining disasters, thankfully less common these days), some too slowly (black lung). So, no, I don’t see any objective reason to cry for those jobs. It is proper to help people with the jobs, and understand there are cultural aspects, but these jobs gotta go. Postponing what is necessary is not merciful but cruel.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Wind farms create permanent/long term revenue in communities. Some of that comes from decent paying jobs for those who operate the plant. Other local jobs via the tax revenue and lease money going to landowners.

        More money in the county coffers means more public employees, more public work construction jobs. More money in rancher/farmer pockets means more money spent locally at the farm equipment store, grocery store, furniture store, etc.

        Some coal mining communities are being hurt but at the same time a lot of small towns are coming back to life.

        • Rita

          If there are enough wind farms being build, there may be enough construction jobs to at least carry all the current coal mining jobs over.
          The labor jobs may differ somewhat, but a job is a job.

          • Coley

            I live in an area that was ( and still is, to an extent) devastated by the closure of the mining, steel and shipbuilding industries that it was built upon, it’s an area that now has a disproportionate number of wind farms that have created zilch jobs in this area.
            While being a huge fan of RE, it’s galling to see our power being supplied by foreign companies and the infrastructure being built by foreign workers.
            Other countries demand that such projects provide work for the communities in which they are being built, not dear old blighty though!

          • Larmion

            Wind farms create a lot of jobs in the UK, for British people. Almost all turbines and accessories used in the UK are UK-built. Hull is seeing a revival thanks to the offshore wind industry, and cities don’t come much more depressed than Hull…

            Jobs aren’t going to foreigners. They’re going to locals of the limited number of communities hosting major developers or wind turbine factories.

            But you are right: for those living near wind farms, not that many jobs are being created. Blame the UK’s energy policy: it’s highly centralized, with both risks and rewards falling on the central government rather than on local authorities.

            If revenues were to flow directly to your local council, that money would be spent in your community. The farm itself still wouldn’t generate a lot of jobs, but at least the profits could then be used to indirectly create jobs (the council could try to cut business rates for example or something along those lines).

            That’s what’s happening in Germany and in the US. The UK, like Belgium or France, sends all money straight to the central government.

          • Coley

            Are they?
            Quiet revolution seems to be the only UK manufacturer and they seem to be more research then manufacturer?

          • Larmion

            A business needn’t be British to have factories in the UK. Siemens, Vestas and the other big guys all have UK plants (turbines are expensive to ship, so you want to build them not too far from where you use them).

            And of course, wind farms are often developed by British developers, using British accesory components like foundations.

          • Coley

            Sorry, the nearest I could find was the Siemens development in Hull which will assemble turbines, not manufacture them, though the blade factory is a step in the right direction.
            There are a few ‘mini turbine’ manufactures but not any of the major players.

      • Ronald Brakels

        Australia, the world’s second largest coal exporter, has about 55,000 full time jobs in direct employment by the coal industry. Rooftop solar currently has about a third that number. For our second largest industry it really does not employ many people. And miners can just be on a fly in fly out basis and not at all involved with any local community that might exist. And now we have robot trucks in mines and are getting robot trains and robot robot truck washers, so employment would be heading down anyway, even if coal demand was steady instead of falling. Now I’m not saying anyone deserves to lose their job (okay, Tony Abbott does) but if we want to stop murdering people when we crank our stereos up (from things like flooding in Bangladesh as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, not Justin Bieber’s voice) then we need to stop mining coal. That’s all their is to it.

        If people want, we can alway pay coal miners to dig up and then bury the same few tonnes of coal all day. But it might make more sense for them to mine something else. Or employ them in different area altogether. If it stops us murdering people via emissions I’m quite happy to pay for whatever combination of relocation, job training, job subsidy, early retirement, or luddite robot smashing is required. (But preferably not the last. They might smash back.)

        • Larmion

          Australia almost exclusively has large open-cast mines, correct? Compare to the much more labor-intensive deep mines found in Appalachia, or in parts of Europe.

          I’m not for a moment suggesting we shouldn’t end coal mining. Today, if possible. However, coal currently offers relatively well paid work to people with few other skills. And unlike Australia, where mines are often in the middle of nowhere, not directly connected to a community, mines in the Eastern US and in Europe are often at the centre of vibrant(-ish) towns and villages.

          Europe, for all its welfare and redevelopment plans, still hasn’t managed to deal with the unemployment and poverty in the wake of the pit closures. There just aren’t that many jobs for unskilled workers, certainly not in the area where most mines are. I was in Wales a few months ago. Beautiful place, but some of the villages I saw there reminded me more of Russia than of the UK.

          America and Australia are only at the start of coal’s long decline. You still have time to figure out a better plan to avoid decades of welfare payments, wasted talent and grinding poverty. But between liberal optimistists pretending leaving coal behind is a cakewalk and conservatives trying to pretend coal can still be saved, there is precious little discussion about the issue.

          Any government wanting to end coal must have a clear vision for a managed decline. None has, afaik.

          • Ronald Brakels

            I would imagine that developed countries that aren’t the United States will do the usual. For example, with the closure of the Australian car industry 27,000 people will lose their jobs. (That’s half the number employed by the Australian coal industry.) And they’re getting the usual mix of training, payouts, early retirement, relocation payments, job seeking assistance and so on. Whereas in the US they just let Detroit die in a celebration of freedom and personal autonomy. So the plan already exists and has been used plenty of times before, or consciously not used in the case of the United States so as to preserve the inner feelings of self worth of those who used to have good jobs in sunset industries. As coal is unfortunately likely to take longer to die than the three years the Australian car industry is taking to shut down, that helps with making the transition. And massive unemployment is not a stranger to the coal industry what with the United State’s switch to low sulphur deposits and various mines and field closures world wide. The difference is that now there won’t be new workers hired in a new location to engage in new production. Heck, employment in the US sulphur contaminated with large quanities of coal mines was probably massive before they mostly switched to open pit low sulphur coal mines. The compete end of the existing US coal industry would probably be minor in employment terms compared to that.

          • jeffhre

            IIRC US coal jobs have been declining since 1957. Then mainly due to technology. Now from demand and technology.

      • Coley

        Large redundant aluminium smelter with huge amounts of roof space, close to port with excellent handling facilities for wind turbines and established wind research centre, well trained and skilled workforce readily available.
        Excellent development opportunity for right buyer!
        Anywhere but in the UK that is.

        • Larmion


          If it’s any comfort, smelters here on the continent are closing down just as quickly. There is an overcapacity in the industry and only the very cheapest ones remain in operation – generally those with a captive hydro plant (think Iceland or Norway) or those that enjoy subsidised electricity (France, Germany).

    • Coley

      Aye, let the industry die, but try to give some level of protection to the workers involved, as to the heads of these FF corporations? whey, spikes do come to mind:)

  • JamesWimberley

    The assumption that wind farms make no sense in Appalachia would be news to the proponents of 27 such farms listed by Google (link). The Germans have built turbines successfully in forested areas including the Black Forest. You just need a very high (120m) tower to get the rotor well clear of the treetops. Most tree species in managed forests top out at 40m or so. Obviously you must site on ridges, which raises a few amenity issues, but nothing compared to coal.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Well, in Appalachia they now have a lot of ridges with flat tops.

      Another benefit brought us by Big Coal.

      • Martin

        Yes I do remember that coal mining is called mountain top removal, so if you have a large flat area and power lines to it, would it not be perfect for wind farms and solar?

        There should be no problem with the ‘nimby’ either, because it may improve the look of the area and provide jobs and tax revenue,

        • Bob_Wallace

          I don’t know if there is adequate population close enough by to make large scale solar/wind pay off on top of those blasted off mountains. Someone should look into it. The surrounding communities could really use the jobs and tax revenues.

          • Aku Ankka

            Given that off-shore wind farms with high-capacity DC connections can be efficient enough (from loss-by-transfer perspective), I am not sure this is a problem — these might be closer to consumption than huge farms of Oklahoma of Texas panhandle.

      • spec9

        Ouch. Well, this is a good way to turn those lemons into lemonade.

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