As Australia transitions, with the rest of the world, away from fossil fuel generation and towards renewables, workers in the contracting fossil fuel industry – and whole communities built around them – face an uncertain future.
But what if they simply shifted with the market? A new study out of the US has quantified the costs and benefits of retraining American coal workers for employment in the solar PV industry, and the results are encouraging.
The study, by Michigan University associate professor Joshua Pearce and Oregon State University’s Edward Louie, says that growth of solar-related employment in the US could easily absorb coal-industry layoffs over the next 15 years, offering full-time careers, often with better salaries.
As is the case in Australia, US solar jobs already outnumber jobs in the coal sector; Pearce and Louie note that as of November 2015, America’s solar industry employed 208,859 solar workers, compared to roughly 150,000 jobs remaining in the domestic coal industry.
In Australia, a 2014 report from The Australia Institute found that 4,300 solar PV businesses employed 13,300 people nationally, up from 1,800 in 2008.
As TAI noted then, this number was a “far larger” that the total employed in Australia’s coal-fired power stations, and a good deal larger that the total number of people working in the entire electricity generation sector, which amounted to 9,487 in 2007 according to the ABS, and since which time a number of coal plants have been mothballed.
In the US study, Pearce and Louie listed the range of current coal industry positions – from engineers to mining and power plant operators and administrative workers – and determined the closest equivalent solar position and salary.
In many cases the researchers found that non-executive coal workers could earn more in the solar jobs, with some basic retraining.
“For example, an operations engineer in the coal industry could retrain to be a manufacturing technician in solar and expect about a 10 per cent salary increase,” Pearce wrote in a report on the study.
“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 per cent more on average,” he said.
“Our 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.
“In general, we found that after retraining, technical workers would make more in the solar industry than previously in coal. However, managers and particularly executives would make less.
The study also attempted to calculate the time and investment it would take to retrain coal workers for solar jobs
For some coal employees, the study found that retraining would only amount to a short course or on-the-job training, while more advanced positions would require more education – up to a four-year university degree for some solar engineering positions, which would have a large range in costs from $18,000 to over $136,000 depending on the school.
And on the cost of retraining coal workers, the results of the study show that a relatively minor investment – ranging from $US180 million to $1.8 billion – would allow the vast majority of US coal workers to switch to solar-related positions.
The paper suggested that, rather than coal workers paying for the retraining themselves, coal companies could fund it, either out of a sense of moral obligation, or as part of company-wide efforts to diversify their energy portfolios.
“It would only take 5 per cent 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,” Pearce notes.
Further funding options, the study says, would be individual states providing “coal to solar” transition programs, or federal government-funded retraining.
“The writing on the wall for the coal industry is clear,” says Pearce. “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.
“…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.”