The wind and solar industries could fully replace the number of lost jobs at U.S. coal-fired power plants that are expected to close to meet emission-reduction targets, a recent University of Michigan study has found.
Keeping those wind and solar jobs local could increase the overall cost of the energy transition in the U.S., but it could also help to protect energy workers and local economies as coal is phased out, according to the study published this month in peer-reviewed journal iScience.
The study is the first to quantify the feasibility and cost of entirely replacing coal employment with solar and wind jobs across the country.
Michael Craig, the study’s senior author and a professor at University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, said he was surprised to find this gap in previous research, given nationwide attention to the energy transition’s effect on employment. Craig hopes the results of the study will help inform policymakers going forward.
As of 2019, coal-fired power plants directly employed nearly 80,000 people at more than 250 plants in 43 states. The study divided coal plants into eight regions, including Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin in the Midwest. The four-state region had the most coal plants among the other seven areas, with 46 plants and more than 6,000 job-years in coal operations and maintenance, according to the study. These 46 coal plants also generate more than 179 million tons of carbon emissions annually.
The University of Michigan study showed that solar and wind were able to completely replace coal-sector jobs with local employment opportunities modeled with 50, 500 and 1,000 miles of a retiring coal plant. A majority of these jobs would be in operations and maintenance rather than construction.
The study did not assess the cost or effect of workforce retraining, but it showed that keeping the replacement jobs local to retiring coal plants would increase the cost of displacing coal workers by 5 percent to 33 percent depending on the region, and $83 billion, or 24 percent, across the U.S.
“Our results indicate that replacing lost jobs in coal-plant communities would modestly increase overall energy-transition costs while significantly furthering a just transition for one category of frontline communities,” Craig said in a release about the study.
Craig said in an interview that policymakers could aid in the transition by approving a tax credit to incentivize renewable energy investments in close proximity to current coal plants, which most decarbonization pathways suggest will need to close in the next 10 to 20 years to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
The federal Inflation Reduction Act — which passed through Congress last week and is expected to be signed into law today — includes substantial funding for clean energy tax incentives. New energy investments in communities benefit not only the workers employed by them, but also the local economies, Craig said.
However, Craig said trade offs will need to be weighed for the country to benefit as a whole from coal plant retirements.
“What are we willing to pay to bring along communities that might otherwise be left behind, or similarly, communities that have been historically left behind?” he said.
Meanwhile, Michigan’s transition away from coal is well underway. In 2020, natural gas and nuclear power both generated more of Michigan’s electricity than coal for the first time, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
State energy regulators recently approved plans by Consumers Energy, the Jackson-based, investor-owned utility that serves about 6.6 million Michigan residents, to end all reliance on coal generation by 2025.
The U.S. energy sector currently employs about 7.8 million people, and is growing at a faster rate than overall employment. Michigan ranked first in the nation for energy job growth in a recent U.S. Department of Energy’s jobs report. The state added more than 35,000 energy-sector jobs from 2020 to 2021.