Much has been written about whether the global coal boom is over, and even American coal CEOs are starting to look despondent.
That's good news for the climate, of course, but what about jobs?
New research from Duke University suggests it's a net win on that front too, with the solar, wind and natural gas industries creating four times the number of jobs that were lost in the coal industry between 2008 and 2012. (Note that this doesn't even take into account the huge number of jobs in the energy efficiency industries!) Given the fact that naysayers constantly decry the supposedly catastrophic economic and social impact of a shift to clean energy, this research is one more important data point suggesting that coal's days are numbered.
It would be wrong, however, to suggest that everybody automatically wins from the coming transition. Specifically, senior author Professor Lincoln Pratson points out that heavily coal dependent regions where job losses are heaviest are not the same places where cleaner energy jobs are being added.
Part of this disparity can be placed on the fact that coal regions are not always equally blessed with renewable energy resources. However, it appears there is also a tragic element of coal's persistent political influence preventing these regions from diversifying. West Virginia, for example, recently enacted a restrictive net metering law which will further hold back a region already behind on renewable energy.
The Duke study points to the real world impact of exactly this type of politics:
The lack of geographic overlap of job loss and job creation is the result of many factors, Pratson said. “The areas where a lot of coal is mined in Appalachia, for example, are very rugged and heavily forested -- not easy places to set up solar panels or wind farms.”
Differences in the availability of state incentives for renewable energy also had an effect, noted Haerer. “States with incentives have more growth,” he said. “The southeast is incentive-free, and there is almost no development of green energy there compared to other regions.”
Following the Freedom Industries chemical spill in Charleston, West Virginia, I asked if environmentalists had failed the state. Some commenters responded that West Virginians had done this to themselves, consistently voting for pro-coal, anti-regulation, and anti-renewables candidates.
Whatever the truth on that one, one thing is clear: clean energy is growing and coal is not. At some point, even coal dependent regions will have to get on the solar train. The numbers presented in this study provide one more incentive to do just that.
Oh, and if this recent article in the Atlantic is anything to go by, some coal towns are beginning to think beyond coal.