What do Margaret Thatcher and Barak Obama have in common?
At first glance, not much. But they both earned the ire of the coal industry.
Thatcher closed the mines in England and was vilified for it in the movie Brassed Off.
Reversing Obama’s “war on coal” was a key promise of the Trump campaign. Opponents of both raised the issue of out-of-work coal miners. Why eliminate good jobs for coal miners?
In reality, Obama merely marched in front of the war on coal. Coal has already lost and would have lost without his policies. And the coal industry doesn’t provide good jobs. It provides dangerous and unhealthy jobs that pay good wages. Coal has greatly damaged the environment, and the coal industry deserves to die.
But what about the miners?
The slow death spiral of the American coal industry
Until last year, coal had been the top source of electricity in the US, but starting last year, we get more from natural gas than coal.
According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2006, 49% of the electricity generated in the US came from coal, down from almost 60% in 1988.
Last year, coal’s share had declined to 30%.
Coal production in West Virginia plummeted from 150 million tons in 2006 to less than 90 million tons last year. West Virginia isn’t the nation’s largest coal producer, but it is the state most dependent on coal. After more than a century of mining coal in West Virginia, all the easily accessible coal has been depleted.
Therefore, it has become more expensive to dig deeper for the remaining coal. West Virginia produces only 60% of what it did ten years ago. The coal industry used to employ as many as 64,000 miners in West Virginia, but now it employs only about 12,000.
The number of jobs has declined much more than the amount of coal produced. Automated rock crushers and shovel swings now do work formerly done by human muscle power.
Two political responses
President Trump canceled President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, under which the EIA projected natural gas and renewable energy sources to produce 65% of the nation’s electricity by 2040. Without the plan, it still expects them to produce 57%.
West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, a coal baron himself, has no choice but to lead the state in a transition from coal, although using that phrase is politically unacceptable. He is backing a plan to transform an old surface mine into a commercial development park that will provide jobs in retail and office work. He wants to boost the timber, furniture, and tourist industries.
Other possible alternative jobs mentioned in my reading include other manufacturing (without labor unions), shipping warehouses, or call centers. Unfortunately, many of these jobs either require a college degree and/or specialized training, or they pay only minimum wage—a far cry from the $30 per hour coal miners can take home.
We have to do better than that.
What we can learn from Germany
Pulling the plug on coal
Zollverein, a large coal mine near Essen, Germany that closed in 1986, has become a UNESCO world heritage site.
Coal miners once labored there in harsh conditions. They stirred up black clouds of coal dust with every footstep. The machines roared at a constant, ear-splitting 110 decibels.
Now a few of the miners have returned there to serve as guides for the million and a half tourists who visit every year.
In the 1950s, German coal mines employed about 600,000 miners and other workers in the Ruhr Valley.
Today, it has shut down all but two hard coal mines, and they will close by the end of the year. Closure of Germany’s soft coal mines looms on the horizon. Germany plans to get 80% of its energy from renewable sources by 2050. Already, skies are blue in areas where industry had once turned them a perpetual dirty gray.
Taking care of out-of-work coal miners—sort of
Germany’s rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewables forever changed the lives of the miners and their families. It could have created a social and economic disaster for them. As it is, some cities experience unemployment of up to 15%.
But the government, in cooperation with labor unions, proactively began to train coal miners for other careers in 1994. Besides tourism and renewable energy, children of former coal miners perform such entirely unrelated jobs as landscapers or security guards.
Gelsenkirchen was once known as the city of a thousand fires. Now it has so many solar panels and solar companies that it has become the city of a thousand suns.
It is building a science park on the former site of a coal-powered steel mill. The park includes an educational center, called EnergyLab, and several businesses that concentrate on renewable energy development and other aspects of science and technology. EnergyLab’s project director boasts of having a thinking factory in place of a steel factory.
As Germany moves toward renewable energy, the Ruhr Valley looks to play as important a role in it as it once played in coal. The remaining high unemployment testifies, however, that the transition away from hard coal did not proceed perfectly. It has left too many unemployed miners behind.
Germany hopes to improve on how it retrains out-of-work coal miners over the coming decades as it phases out its soft coal mines. To do so, it needs to learn the lessons of both its successes and failures.
The rest of the world also ought to learn from Germany how to make as smooth a transition as possible for workers displaced by moving away from fossil fuels.
Alternative jobs in renewable energy?
It might seem logical to transfer workers from a dying energy industry, coal, to a growing energy industry, renewables.
Doing so will require meeting several challenges. The technical competence of coal miners is the least of them. Geographic, economic, and political conditions present greater obstacles.
Solar energy works only in places with abundant sunshine. Wind energy works only in places with abundant and steady wind. Not every place in the US has the geographic requirements to support the generation of electricity from solar or wind. That leaves plenty of places with untapped potential.
Where development of renewable energy hasn’t taken hold already, people will be interested in increasing it only if it provides cheaper power than what they’re getting already.
Political challenges to renewable energy
The economics have become more favorable to renewables year by year. Political considerations may present the greatest challenge.
The major coal-producing states have not embraced solar and wind power. Wyoming, for example, taxes wind-energy generation. California offers 264 incentives for clean energy. West Virginia offers only 11. Without state-funded incentives, there will be little demand for installation of solar panels, for example.
Even in places more welcoming to renewables, such seemingly unrelated aspects of law as zoning or building codes can get in the way.
Since most solar-related jobs in the US are in installation, they will not come to coal country as long as not enough people want to install them. Of course, there is no reason why renewable energy has to pick up the entire burden of the transition away from coal.
Retraining thousands of out-of-work coal miners for other jobs will be expensive. In the five most coal-dependent states, it might cost anywhere from $120 million to $1.1 billion to retrain coal workers for the solar industry. They will likely need to learn sales as well as how to install panels.
Who will pay?
Miners who still have jobs can afford tuition. Coal mines could pay for retraining of laid-off workers if they’re willing. In most cases, state and local governments can most plausibly bear the costs. The federal government can also help. Some renewable companies that look to hire miners have begun to pay for training.
Job alternatives for out-of-work coal miners
Goldwind Americas, a subsidiary of a Chinese company, makes and services wind turbines. It has looked to Wyoming coal country for up to 200 workers to maintain the 850 turbines it expects to install in Carbon County. It is offering free training for workers, potentially including hundreds of coal miners recently laid off.
Because coal mining has become so automated, today’s coal miners have skills in robotics they can transfer to other non-energy industries. And other industries are taking notice. The HAAS eKentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute in Paintville, Kentucky was founded to train unemployed coal workers for other jobs. And thus attract new employers to the area.
People who have gone through the 16-week training program already have jobs lined up before they finish. They go to work for such companies as CSX Transportation or Lockheed-Martin. In the near future, graduates will have to relocate to accept these positions. Eastern Kentucky needs to build up transportation infrastructure before very many companies build factories there, but the process has started.
EnerBlu, a manufacturer of lithium batteries founded in Riverside, California, has announced plans to move its headquarters to Pikeville, Kentucky in the heart of coal country. It will build a manufacturing facility there that will employ 875 full-time workers.
EnerBlu received generous tax subsidies, of course, but it only considered Pikeville in the first place because the labor force there already has the skills it needs.
Braidy Industries has announced plans to build an aluminum plant in eastern Kentucky for the same reasons. It will employ 550 full-time workers.
Also in Pikeville, BitSource, a software and development company, has hired nine out-of-work coal miners to code software. The company was founded specifically to prevent a “brain drain” from the area. So it wasn’t looking for experienced coders. It looked for people among unemployed coal miners with the aptitude or coding and provided the skills.
Sooner or later the entire world will have to wean itself from fossil fuels entirely. Workers in the oil and natural gas industries will therefore inevitably face what coal miners are experiencing now.
These are real people raising real families. We need to take care of out-of-work coal miners, and eventually other fossil fuel workers, with compassion and imagination.
Can we put coal miners back to work in clean energy? / Sidney Fussell, Gizmodo. August 3, 2017
Coal’s last kick / Justin Worland, Time. 
Germany’s transition from coal to renewables offers lessons for the world / Emma Bryce, Scientific American. September 5, 2017
Storage, wind, solar companies are recruiting coal miners for their work ethics and high-tech skills / Jim Marston, Renewable Energy World. May 9, 2018
Coal miner. Photo by Khushie Singh (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons
Wyoming coal mine. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Electric plant. Some rights reserved by lowjumpingfrog (link no longer works as of August 2017)
Home solar installation. Some rights reserved by Lauren Wellicome. Link to Flickr no longer works.