Coal workers could be fully retrained in solar professions for just 5% of the profits that coal companies make in a single year

Joshua M. Pearce, Harvard Business Review

A study published in the Harvard Business Review found that growing solar-related employment could benefit coal workers, by easily absorbing the coal-industry layoffs over the next 15 years and offering full-time careers.

Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the researchers looked at all current coal industry positions (from engineers to mining and power plant operators to administrative workers), the skill sets required for each (for example, specific degrees and amount of work experience), and their respective average salaries.

For each type of coal position, they determined the closest equivalent solar position and salary. For example:

  • an operations engineer in the coal industry could retrain to be a manufacturing technician in solar and expect about a 10% salary increase. Similarly,
  • explosive workers, ordinance handlers, and blasters in the coal industry could use their sophisticated safety experience and obtain additional training to become commercial solar technicians and earn about 11% more on average.

The 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).

In general, they found that after retraining, technical workers would make more in the solar industry than previously in coal. However, managers and particularly executives, who are earning much more than others working in the coal industry, would make less.

By identifying the requisite skills to be learned and the various educational programs available, they also calculated the time and investment it would take to retrain an employee. Most coal workers could not simply walk into a solar job; they would need some retraining. But certain positions required less training—for example, a structural engineer in the coal industry would not need additional schooling to work as one in the solar industry.

And for some coal employees, the retraining would only amount to a short course or on-the-job training.  More advanced positions, however, would require more education. Some solar-related engineering positions call for up to a four-year university degree.

The paper includes appendices that can help current coal workers match their existing job to the best potential fits in solar, as well as what training they’ll need. It should be noted, however, that the costs and specific schools used as examples were just that.

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.

Our paper evaluated four ways this training could be funded. First, coal workers could fund their own retraining. Second, coal companies could fund retraining of their own workers before laying them off. There are several reasons employers may want to consider this—whether it’s because they feel an obligation to take care of their workers, are diversifying their energy portfolios the way some oil companies have done to be more resilient, or want to improve their public perception. It would only take 5% of coal company revenue from a single year to provide “scholarships” to their workers to fully pay for the retraining they would need to move to solar.

A third way to fund would be individual states providing “coal to solar” transition programs. And the fourth option is the federal government could fund the retraining. 

Workers in any declining industry can learn from the coal industry. They can provide themselves valuable job security insurance by preemptively retraining, and there are numerous opportunities for online training (and even working) in a wide variety of fields. Businesses in tangential industries may also want to consider retraining their own workers—electric utilities, for example, can retrain their coal-fired power plant workers for positions involving utility-scale solar farms.

The writing on the wall for the coal industry is clear. Price pressure from natural gas, wind, and solar has been relentless. Increasingly stringent environmental regulations to curb pollution continue to raise the costs of coal, and public perception of the industry continues to fall. The growing threat of liability due to inherent greenhouse gas emissions that come from coal combustion may climb to the hundreds of trillions of dollars. Young coal workers, in particular, should consider retraining for a job in solar now.

Research was performed by Joshua M. Pearce, an associate professor cross-appointed in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering and in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the Michigan Technological University where he runs the Open Sustainability Technology Research Group. He received his Ph.D. in Materials Engineering from the Pennsylvania State University. He then developed the first Sustainability program in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and helped develop the Applied Sustainability graduate engineering program while at Queen’s University, Canada.

From the Denver Post, Aug 15, 2016, by Danika Worthington, dworthington@denverpost.com

Work program trains unemployed oil and gas workers in solar technology

“People are becoming more and more open to it because they’re starting to realize it’s just another part of the energy sector,” Turek said. “At the end of the day, we need electricity, and that need for electricity is just growing.”

Workers with Bella Energy install solar panels on the rooftop of in Boulder on July 25, 2014.
Workers with Bella Energy install solar panels on the rooftop of in Boulder on July 25, 2014.

The coal industry has been painted with a bleak brush in recent years. Production has plummeted. Plants have closed. Jobs have been lost.

And while mining communities grapple with neighbors moving away, increasingly empty schools and fewer tax dollars, a separate industry is blooming: renewable energy.

National rhetoric pits the two energy producers against each other. But in Delta County, one organization is targeting unemployed coal miners in the hope of transitioning them into the solar industry — and leaving politics out of the conversation.

“We try to steer clear from that in our classes. We try not to get too political,” said Chris Turek, spokesman for Solar Energy International. “We all can agree that the technology works and it’s getting less and less expensive every year.”

Marla Korpar, who coordinates a separate SEI solar program in Delta County, said that about two or three years ago, the organization saw coal mines closing and skilled workers become jobless in their community. She said this kick-started the organization’s efforts to engage its local community, whereas a majority of its attention previously was on national and international efforts.

We’re very sensitive to our history as a coal-mining community, and we want to preserve that history,” Korpar said. “That’s where this convergence of being an energy-producing valley and community comes from.”

Launched in the middle of June, the program hopes to recruit and train 350 people in various fields within the solar industry and has reached 90 so far. Students can take either a single course — an introduction to solar — or more than 200  hours of training in the Solar Professionals Certificate Program.

Turek said SEI focused on recruiting miners by going to workforce offices, other career transitioning programs and using their own connections with the coal-mining sector. He said the miners’ focus on safety, as well as their experience with mechanics and electrical engineering, can be easily transferred to the solar industry.

“People are becoming more and more open to it because they’re starting to realize it’s just another part of the energy sector,” Turek said. “At the end of the day, we need electricity, and that need for electricity is just growing.”

He said the program has been well-received so far. SEI is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year and has more than 45,000 alumni.

“I think this whole issue of retraining, especially coal workers, to have exciting new careers in solar is definitely a topic all over the country,” Colorado Solar Energy Industry Association president Rebecca Cantwell said. “SEI, in a way, they’re somewhat unique because they’re located in Paonia, right in the heart of coal country.”

She said there have been other initiatives to transition people to solar, noting community college programs backed by the White House and Department of Energy initiatives. She said that SEI is the premier solar training agency in Colorado.

“We’re going to see more and more of this because there’s more and more awareness that the coal industry is in real trouble,” Cantwell said. She later added, “The concerns are very real in these Colorado communities that have been dependent on these good-paying jobs.”

Larry Sherwood, president of Interstate Renewable Energy Council, said that 10 years ago, maybe even as recently as five years ago, the sector was so small that job training didn’t make sense.

Sherwood said he started hearing chatter about training former coal miners about six months to a year ago. He said the quickly growing industry tries to find employees from sectors that are losing jobs or from veterans finishing their service.

“I know that solar companies are definitely looking for people to hire and sometimes having trouble finding people,” he said.

He attributed it both to a lack of trained solar workers but also difficulty finding hard workers who are willing to climb on roofs and have basic job skills, like showing up on time.

“I would tend to be supportive of any effort to help people,” said Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association. But he later added, “We need to be realistic about what the prospects are for finding anything that comes close to what jobs pay.”  The average mining job in Colorado paid $91,049 in 2015, according to the National Mining Association, though that includes executive pay. In comparison, SEI said installer jobs are paid a “living wage,” potentially making somewhere from $15 to $25 an hour, which would translate to $31,200 and $52,000 annually.

“It’s not the same as what you’re making in the coal mines, but there’s good opportunity for growth and other benefits,” SEI Executive Director Kathy Swartz said. “And it’s a good job. Solar jobs aren’t going anywhere.”

Employment at coal mines dropped 36 percent to 1,449 miners in 2015 from 2,248 in 2012, according to data from the Colorado Mining Association. That does not include losses in indirect employment, perhaps thousands of jobs in related industries.

Two of the three mines fueling jobs in the county — Elk Creek Mine and Bowie #2 — have gone idle since 2013. Arch Coal, the operator of the remaining West Elk Mine, filed for bankruptcy in January and lost its spot as the state’s top producer when it cut production by half and slimmed staff by 45 percent in the first six months of this year, compared with the first six months of last year.

“In the last three years, Delta County has seen a decrease of over a thousand jobs in our coal-mining industry,” Delta County Administrator Robbie LeValley said. “That’s 1,000 families that no longer have a job in the coal-mining industry.”

But at the same time, solar jobs have grown quickly, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. If the U.S. economy in 2015 played out on a track, solar job growth would lap overall job growth 12 times. Colorado has 4,998 solar jobs, mainly installers, and 400 solar companies, according to the Solar Foundation. Those Colorado solar jobs are also expected to grow by 10 percent.

Turek said that although the program is based in Paonia, SEI is hoping to train people from across Colorado. Arapahoe County leads Colorado with 1,305 solar jobs, followed by Denver and Jefferson counties, which have 982 and 887, respectively. But Delta County only has 69.

SEI isn’t oblivious.

“What we never want to do is artificially say, ‘Take training and you’ll get a job here,’ ” Swartz said. “The solar market has to be able to support the people that you’re training.”  So SEI is taking a two-prong approach. Beyond Solar Ready Colorado, the organization created Solarize, a program aimed at growing the number of homes with rooftop solar. During a three-month period, homeowners can sign up for solar with a rebate system. The more people who sign up, the cheaper installations are for everyone.

Solarize community coordinator Korpar said the initial program with a neighborhood coalition in Portland, Ore., was successful. A community of about 9,500 people invested $400,000 and added 123 kW of solar to the grid, creating six new jobs. SEI had a second Solarize program from April to July in Delta County, which aimed to add 200 kW to the grid. Korpar said SEI extended the deadline, though, because there was a lot of interest and the organization hasn’t been able to give all prospective customers proposals yet.

Turek also said that SEI helps students get jobs through connections with industry partners, like the Colorado Solar Energy Industry Association, and alumni who are now running some of Colorado’s big solar companies, such as Sunrun.

LeValley said Delta County leaders have been supportive of SEI’s work, adding that its part of the county’s efforts to broaden its economic base.  Historically, the county has relied on coal mining, agriculture and tourism. She said the county still relies on those three, although they’ve been expanded to include a broader energy portfolio that includes renewables instead of just coal, and a greater diversification of tourism and recreation.