With all eyes on Georgia, now would be a good time to draw attention to a new “just transition” study from the Georgia Institute of Technology that suggests how the US can plot the renewable energy workforce of tomorrow. The idea of a managed, balanced transition is especially relevant to Rust Belt states that have already suffered the consequences of failure to plan for economic upheavals that lead to unemployment, displacement, and community malaise. In particular, the new research adds more fuel to the fire raging over clean power in Ohio, where state legislators are still clinging desperately to fossil fuels.
Ohio Sets The Table For Renewable Energy Biz
Ohio’s history as a manufacturing hub puts it in a good position to take advantage of the renewable energy transition. The state’s skilled workforce, infrastructure, supply chain access, and transportation network all work in favor of new green jobs.
That hasn’t pushed fossil power out of the state’s energy profile, though. The cost of clean power is dropping but fossil energy still holds a firm grip on electricity generation in Ohio. The state’s two nuclear power plants also compete for their share of the pie, too.
As a result, the present state of the green economy looks rather gloomy in the Buckeye State. Ohio currently clocks in at the unimpressive #28 slot for installed solar capacity among the 50 states and employs less than 8,000 workers in the solar industry. Its wind industry occupies a similarly dismal position, sitting on the #24 shelf for installed wind capacity and offering less than 2,000 jobs.
That not too horrible, but leading US corporations have been demanding more clean power for years. Fossil-friendly states like Ohio could lose out on opportunities to attract and retain businesses. Come to think of it, Ohio is in an especially vulnerable position, considering its proximity to more renewables-friendly states like Illinois, Michigan, and Indiana.
Winds Of Change Shine Upon Renewable Energy In Ohio
On the bright side, Ohio’s renewable energy future could be closer than it appears. Despite a newly proposed 3-year moratorium on large wind and solar projects, clean power developers are lining up three deep to do business in Ohio.
Much of the activity is taking place in the solar power area. Last week our friends over at The Columbus Dispatch took a deep dive into solar activity in Ohio and came up with more than 20 solar projects in various stages of proposal, driven partly by the emerging data center market.
The Dispatch estimates those projects will bring a total of approximately 4 gigawatts of solar power into Ohio, which would cover more than 14% of the state’s total electricity production. That’s a giant step up from the current mark of just 0.5% for solar.
Activity in the wind sector is also beginning to pick up steam. Back in 2014 the state passed burdensome new restrictions on wind farms, but some of the nation’s leading corporate power buyers have helped to break up the logjam. Whirlpool was among the the early corporate wind power adopters seeking a wind power future for Ohio in 2016, followed by GM in 2017 with another wind farm announcement.
Just a few weeks ago, McDonald’s also announced a huge clean power deal covering wind and solar in Ohio and several other states.
A Love Letter From Georgia
If and when the floodgates finally open on renewable energy development in Ohio, the dark side could be an unemployment nightmare for thousands of fossil workers who can’t make the transition. Pushing fossils out of power generation is a good thing for the planet, but the willy-nilly closure of fossil power plants has been rippling into extractive industries, fostering bankruptcies and restructurings that can leave workers, pensioners, and entire communities in the lurch.
On the bright side, Ohio could become a perfect test case for the ability of planning and foresight to prepare today’s fossil workforce for the green jobs of the future.
That’s where the new Georgia Tech study comes in. It focuses on power plant retirements in the US and is authored by Emily Grubert, an assistant professor in the Georgia Tech School of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
You can get all the details under the title, “Fossil Electricity Retirement Deadlines for a Just Transition,” in the journal Science, but for those of you on the go, the title pretty much sums up Gruber’s case for plotting green workforce development in accord with retirement deadlines for fossil power plants.
To state it another way, Grubert suggests that much of the heavy lifting for decarbonizing the power sector is already under way, because much of the nation’s fossil power capacity is already due to retire in line with President-Elect Joe Biden’s 2035 carbon-free goal.
On a capacity basis, Gruber estimates that about 73% of gigawatts in US fossil fuel power generation will reach the end of its typical lifespan by 2035.
That leaves the question of what to do the remaining gigawatts. Squeezing them into the 2035 timeline could result in stranded assets and financial liabilities that ripple back to smack workers, leaving communities in some regions exposed to the kind of Rust Belt financial catastrophe that decimated the steel and auto industries in the 1970s and 1980s.
However, Gruber argues that the fallout could be manageable, considering the relatively small amount of stranded assets that would result from accelerated retirements.
On a lifespan basis, Gruber estimates that about 15% of capacity life would be stranded under the 2035 timeline. Compared to a 2018 employment baseline, that would translate into approximately 20% of power plant and fossil fuel extraction jobs.
“…A 2035 electricity decarbonization deadline, as proposed by President-elect Biden and the 2020 Democratic party platform, would strand only about 15% of fossil capacity-years and 20% of job-years, which is unusually low from a global perspective,” Gruber explains. “Such insights into the location and timing of potential plant closures are critical for informing specific, coordinated, and locally grounded planning, which can substantially improve transition outcomes but is neither widespread nor supported by a national framework.”
More Green Jobs For The USA
If you caught that thing about the lack of a national framework, that’s true as far as White House policy goes. However, the US Department of Energy seems to have charted its own course on renewable energy during the Trump administration, and workforce development is part of the plan.
In 2015 the Energy Department estimated that the US wind industry could support 600,000 green jobs by 2050, and it has provided industry grants to help feed a steady supply of qualified workers into the wind power pipeline.
The Energy Department also began working with The Solar Foundation on solar workforce development during the Obama administration, and it continued to ramp up the effort after Trump took office. One program of note is the Solar Ready Vets initiative, which gives active duty military a head start on training and employment services before they muster out.
That right there is a pretty wide pipeline. About 200,000 military personnel transition into civilian life each year, and many are equipped with skills that transfer into clean power.
As for Ohio, coal and gas stakeholders have held the reins for generations but it’s only a matter of time before home-state firms with a growing footprint in the global renewable energy marketplace begin to flex their energy policy muscles.
One company to watch is the Canton-based manufacturer Timken, which is pivoting on its 100 years of experience in bearings and power transmission to grab a bigger foothold in the global renewable energy field. Last month Timken announced new investments in China, Japan, and Mexico with an eye on rising demand and new customers.
State legislators seeking to convince Timken that Ohio should be the company’s next target for new investment might want to take a closer look at the company’s latest sustainability-oriented vision statement, which cites “propelling the renewable energy sector” and “embracing energy efficiency, pollution prevention, waste management and recycling programs at Timken facilities globally” among its main goals.
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Image: “This map shows the locations of electricity-generating facilities with projected lifespans that extend beyond 2035″ by Emily Grubert, Georgia Tech.