Jobs in energy aren't necessarily going away, they just look a little different. Here's how they stack up.Let's be clear: coal mining jobs are not returning to the U.S. It does not matter that environmental regulations are being rolled back to support the flagging coal industry. While coal fired power generation is still a significant share of electricity generation in the U.S. (30.4%)1, net generation from coal sources declined by a whopping 53% between 2006-20162.
But that’s not to say that jobs in the energy sector have also declined. They just look a little different these days. The good news is that for the first time ever, solar has become the cheapest form of energy, and wind is cost competitive with fossil fuels. Which means jobs in renewable energy are on the rise.
Here’s how they stack up:
The Growth of Solar and Wind
Hydroelectric energy still accounts for the lion's share of renewable energy generation at 56%. However, wind (23%) and solar (15%) account for most of the remainder and are gaining traction. Renewable energy job growth has been strong. In fact, solar and wind accounted for nearly half of all jobs in the energy sector in 2016 and are on track to keep climbing.3
Bloomberg New Energy Finance forecasts that wind and solar energy will grow 51 percent over the next three years, with companies including NextEra Energy Inc. and NRG Energy Inc. expanding their portfolios.4 “We think our goals are responsible business and also good business,” said Bruno Sarda, head of sustainability at NRG, which plans to reduce its emissions 50 percent by 2030. “Regardless of what happens around [the Clean Power Plan], we will continue on our path to create a sustainable energy future and decarbonize power generation.”
Here’s Why Clean Energy is on the Rise
1. Costs to develop renewable energy are dropping. In fact, we’ve seen a 10% drop in the cost of solar and wind improving the cost competitiveness of those technologies. Economies of scale are are driving falling prices in solar and wind. Even unsubsidized, they‘re beginning to outcompete coal and natural gas in an ever-widening circle of countries.5 These factors and others are making renewables an ever greater value proposition relative to fossil fuels like coal and even natural gas.
2. Investments in renewable energy are at an all time high. In 2015, renewable energy investment reached record levels at $286.7 billion.
3. The global economy has recognized the need to switch to renewables. Global renewable generating capacity growth has been steady for almost a decade, between 8%-9%. In 2016 it was 8.7%.6 Many countries are likely to enhance their efforts to reduce emissions as part of their commitments to the Paris Accords.
4. If Environmental spending falls, both parties suffer. In the U.S., where climate change is a partisan issue, things don’t actually play out along partisan lines when it comes to environmental projects like renewable energy generation and energy efficiency projects. A Bloomberg analysis of federal contract data shows that spending related to the environment reached 423 congressional districts in fiscal year 2016 and totaled $5.9 billion. Almost half that spending—47 percent—went to districts represented by Republicans. (Bloomberg has a really cool interactive map that shows you where in the U.S. these projects are happening).
The state of California now employs more people in the solar industry than the entire country employs for coal.
The Decline of Coal and Gas
The state of California now employs more people in the solar industry than the entire country employs for coal. The rise of renewable jobs has also meant the decline of jobs in coal and gas. Here’s why:
1. Machines are taking over. As Bloomberg New Energy Finance points out, U.S. mining equipment has gotten bigger, badder, and way more efficient. Perhaps the biggest killer of coal jobs is improved mining equipment.
2. Renewable energy jobs are a better value proposition for laborers. They’re local. Generation jobs can’t be outsourced. Renewable jobs pay about $5,000 more than the median wage. Renewable energy jobs are poised for growth. In fact, wind turbine technician is the fastest growing profession in the United States according to the Department of Labor, with an expect 108 percent growth rate to 2026.7 Solar and wind jobs have grown at rates of about 20% annually in recent years, and each are creating jobs at a rate 12 times faster than that of the rest of the U.S. economy.8
3. Natural gas may eventually be phased out. Natural gas, which is cheaper and has lower emissions than coal, continues to be a popular alternative to coal and oil. However, while environmental groups have tolerated natural gas as transition fuel relative to coal, sentiment seems to be turning against it.
Perception vs. Reality
Ultimately, all of the rhetoric about environmental regulations being an impediment to job growth in the United States does not track with the realities of significant job growth in the renewable energy industry. The demand is only growing for renewable energy, which is lending tremendous support for renewable energy jobs. Seems like it’s time to let the canary out of the coal mine.