As the American electricity sector transformed following the 2008 recession, job losses in the coal industry were far outweighed by job gains in natural gas, wind and solar. But, as a tour through West Virginia’s southern coalfields would show, those new jobs were typically not created in the same areas where jobs were lost, a new study finds.
The coal electricity industry lost more than 49,000 jobs between 2008 and 2012, the report from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment estimated.
At the same time, the study estimates that the natural gas industry added nearly 95,000 jobs and wind and solar added a combined 79,000 jobs.
That’s a net increase of more than 124,000 energy jobs over the last four years, but, for suffering coal communities, the job gains aren’t in the right places.
“Job increases in the natural gas, solar and wind industries generally did not occur where there were significant job losses in the coal industry,” the study says, “particularly in West Virginia and Kentucky.”
The numbers focus on operations jobs, not construction jobs.
So for the coal sector, the numbers encompass not only mining jobs, but jobs involving transporting coal and jobs at coal-fired power plants. Metallurgical coal is excluded.
The study did not include manufacturing or construction jobs, for building things like mining equipment, solar panels or power plants, as, the authors say, those jobs can often be outsourced, or for building power plants, can be temporary.
For the coal and natural gas industries, the authors used economic and energy production data to extrapolate job changes. Job numbers for wind and solar come from industry reports.
They then combined the overall jobs numbers with geographical data on where gas and coal are extracted, where new power generation has opened and where power plants have closed to get a county-by-county analysis.
The hardest hit areas, the study finds, were in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky as well as one county in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. It did find moderate increases in coal jobs in Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas.
The study will appear in the July issue of “Energy Policy” a peer-reviewed journal, and was conducted with no external or industry funding.
The authors, Drew Haerer and Lincoln Pratson, cited three reasons for the rapid increase in natural gas, wind and solar jobs while coal jobs plunged.
One was cost. Coal prices rose through 2014, they write, due to higher costs associated with more difficult to mine coal. At the same time, fracking and horizontal drilling technology caused natural gas prices to fall.
Second, tighter federal regulations on pollutants from power plants have disproportionately hurt coal, which is much more polluting.
And lastly, government incentives plus new private financing methods have made wind and solar power more affordable.
States that have a renewable energy goal or standard, which West Virginia just repealed, generally saw better energy job growth, the study found.
West Virginia, which gets 95 percent of its electricity from coal, has just five operational wind farms (just one in the southern part of the state) and virtually no solar power generating capacity.
“It’s not very promising, unfortunately, at least in the near term,” Pratson, a professor of earth science, said of energy jobs in West Virginia. “I am always impressed at how rapidly the energy industry changes so I’m hesitant to say what this bodes for even the near future for West Virginia, but if you just look at the situation as it stands now it doesn’t look like the coal industry is going to undergo a rapid period of growth anytime soon.”
The largest job gains came in solar facilities in the Southwest; natural gas production in North Dakota, Pennsylvania and west Texas and wind power across the Midwest.
As for the coalfields of central Appalachia, the authors are not predicting a renaissance.
“When, if ever, the job numbers will approach 2008 levels again, however, is unclear,” they write. “In the interim, counties that continue to rely inordinately on the coal industry for jobs may be in for a long period of lowered employment by the industry.”
This article was written by DAVID GUTMAN from The Charleston Gazette, W.Va. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.