Solar energy is a disruptive technology, and many established energy industries and their allies have fought against that disruption. What about all of these great coal jobs? What will become of those workers? Well, unlike other disruptions, in which technology displaces a workforce and leaves it high and dry, there is plenty of room aboard the expanding solar industry bandwagon for those who were formerly working in fossil fuel industries.
In a study published in Energy Economics, researchers from Michigan Technological University and Oregon State University see a bright spot for coal workers targeting high-quality employment in the rapidly expanding solar photovoltaic industry.
Joshua Pearce, who holds a dual appointment in materials science and engineering as well as electrical and computer engineering at Michigan Tech, helped assess what will be required to retrain workers for a different energy field. While the task is not easy, it can be achieved, states this study.
“Although coal investors can simply call their brokers to move their money to more profitable industries, coal workers are left with pink slips and mortgages,” Pearce said. “Fortunately, the solar energy industry sector is growing at an incredible rate – and they are hiring.”
Pearce and co-author Edward Louie, of the School of Public Policy at Oregon State University, believe the growth of solar-related employment can absorb the layoffs in the coal industry over the next 15 years. To determine this, Louie and Pearce compared existing coal industry jobs — and the salaries and skill sets of these positions — to ones in the solar industry. They then estimated the cost of returning to school and retraining time.
Pearce notes his estimates are simply examples and could vary, although there are numerous low-cost options for solar training people might pursue while still employed. He stated the appendices from the study will be most useful to current coal workers, where people can look up an existing job and go over the best potential fits in the solar industry and the training which is required.
“Many of these coal miners have transferable skill sets already,” says Christopher Turek, the director of Solar Energy International. “These range from mechanical and electrical expertise, all the way to their confidence in working in a highly technical field with a strong focus on safety.”
Currently, based on data from The Solar Foundation, the photovoltaic energy industry is bringing on new workers 12 times faster than the overall economy. As of November 2015, the solar industry employs 208,859 solar workers, more than the roughly 150,000 jobs remaining in the coal industry. And the photovoltaic energy sector is expected to continue expanding.
And this shift isn’t just theoretical, academic-paper fodder. It is happening as we speak. As was noted in this recent Marketplace article, 80,000 oil workers have been laid off across the country as oil prices have plummeted, and in Texas, a bunch of those workers have made the solar transition as a result.
David Webster has been managing the Mission Solar warehouse in San Antonio since February. Before finding work in the solar sector, Webster spent 10 years shipping oil out of rigs all over the world. Now, he makes sure that the solar panels are packaged and distributed to customers across the U.S.
Transitioning to solar energy was an adjustment.
“Learning about the different types of [panels], learning how the whole process works, that was a learning curve,” Webster said. “The warehouse portion and the management people, not so much.”
This might sound promising to coal industry workers who fear for their job security. However, there are many financial hurdles which must be overcome in such a retraining process. These include supporting a family while training, likely moves from a primary residence, and the maintenance of health insurance and other existing benefits, such as 401K programs.
The vision of retraining may be a great one by appearances, however, the hurdle for shifting careers will be extremely high for many. Plus, Mariela Cruz, a hiring manager at OCI Power, noted in that article that a 50 percent pay cut is pretty typical for people transitioning from oil and gas to solar energy. But an entry level solar job of $50,000 is nothing to sneeze at, especially for a job that is likely less stressful and more stable.
— Solar Builder magazine