Study: As Coal Plants Close, Local Clean Energy Jobs Could Employ All Their Workers
A new study from researchers at the University of Michigan offers an encouraging scenario for the shift to a clean energy economy. If wind and solar power installations are located within 50 miles of the coal-fired power plants that will need to be closed, clean energy could fully replace the jobs that would be lost when the coal plants shut down. Locating new wind and solar near closing coal plants would add some costs to the overall national energy transition, since some coal plants aren't in ideal locations for wind or solar power, but as the study puts it, the increased costs are "modest relative to overall energy transition costs." Plus, there's that benefit of providing jobs and economic stability in communities where the coal plant used to be a major employer.
As you might recall, a few weeks ago, Joe Biden spoke about the clean energy transition at the site of a retired coal plant in Somerset, Massachusetts. That plant was converted into a factory to manufacture transmission cables to be used for offshore wind farms. Once a planned wind farm in the area is up and running, its power output will go through those cables into nearby electric infrastructure that used to carry power generated by the coal plant. The U of Michigan study makes clear that sort of transition can be managed all across the country, even if you don't have an ocean handy.
Here's a quick overview, from the University of Michigan press release on the study:
As of 2019, coal-fired electricity generation directly employed nearly 80,000 workers at more than 250 plants in 43 U.S. states. The new U-M study quantifies—for the first time—the technical feasibility and costs of replacing those coal jobs with local wind and solar employment across the country.
The study, published online Aug. 10 in the peer-reviewed journal iScience, concludes that local wind and solar jobs can fill the electricity generation and employment gap, even if it’s required that all the new jobs are located within 50 miles of each retiring coal plant.
The study notes that there simply hasn't been any research done on the feasibility of replacing coal plants with renewable energy, or how much that would cost, so it should be a significant contribution to shaping energy policy going forward. One major emphasis of the Biden energy plan, going back to the 2020 campaign, is that the clean energy transition needs to include communities that have depended on fossil fuel energy jobs, so this study could help advance the administration's goal of investing 40 percent of climate spending in frontline communities.
We should also note that the study looked only at jobs that will be affected by the closure of coal-fired electric generation plants; coal mining communities and workers — and workers in fossil fuel generally — are another area where similar transition efforts will be needed. (Now watch Fox News have a hissy about how the liberals want oil workers to transition.)
Currently, new wind and solar installations tend to be installed where the conditions are optimal for those energy sources. In general, those tend not to be near former coal plants. It seems fairly unlikely that many workers displaced when a coal plant closes would be able or willing to move for jobs in the new plants. So for a basis of comparison, the study looked at the costs of siting new renewables within 50 miles of existing coal plants versus a radius of 1,000 miles.
Not surprisingly, there would be some additional costs to making sure coal power is replaced with renewable energy jobs available to former coal plant workers. Some regions, like the northern plains states, would see generally low costs to replace coal plants, since they're already well suited to wind — in fact, the costs of locating wind turbines within 50 miles of two coal plants would actually be seven percent lower than having them in a radius of 1000 miles.
If all replacements for retiring coal plants were kept local, the added nationwide costs would be $83 billion, or 24 percent higher. But lead study author Michael Craig, a professor at UM's School for Environment and Sustainability, points out that's relatively minor compared to the overall costs of replacing all US coal plants with renewables by 2030, estimated to be as high as $900 billion. The upside is that you'd be advancing the energy transition in a way that helps keep energy workers in their communities, and that keeps the communities' economic health in mind — while enjoying the health benefits of not having a coal plant in your backyard.
The researchers suggest the switchover could be boosted by federal investment tax credits that would help offset the costs of replacing coal with local wind and solar. Such a credit could be targeted so that it only goes to renewable energy projects that are close to retiring coal plants and that employ retrained workers from coal plants.
The study also determined that relatively few of the new jobs resulting from local siting of new renewables would be short-term construction jobs (unlike, we'll remind you, the mostly temporary jobs created by oil pipelines, ahem!). The replacement jobs would mostly involve operations and maintenance, which would make up 57 to 92 percent of the new jobs, depending on the sites and the type of energy (wind, solar, or mixed).
Also too, the study notes that in reality, a lot of coal plants are still likely to transition from burning coal to a combination of some renewables, and some natural gas, although over the long run, the US and the world will need to cut out all fossil fuels. The study's scenario, where all retired coal plants are replaced by wind and solar, isn't likely to be quite that universally adopted. But the cool thing is that it's actually feasible.
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