Feb 11, 2020 | By Rick Stouffer, Editor, Kallanish Energy
There’s no question the energy mix in the U.S. is undergoing tremendous change, as coal rapidly is being shoved out of the picture, its emissions dooming its use, despite a huge supply in the Lower 48 U.S. states and worldwide.
Coal’s share of U.S. power generation has fallen from 40% in 2014, to just 21% in both 2020 and 2021, the Energy Information Administration projects.
Today, renewables, specifically solar and wind, have taken the top spot in terms of growth in the U.S. energy portfolio. Zero emissions, quick to permit and build, the positives are many, Kallanish Energy reports.
Although until inexpensive energy storage is licked, what to do with solar and wind when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing remain big problems.
Renewables percentage of power jumps
EIA, in its January Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), projects non-hydro renewables share of total generation in the U.S. jumps to 14% in 2021, from 6% in 2014.
Climate scientists say we need to reduce global emissions by roughly 4% annually, moving toward zero emissions before the end of the century. But emissions-free technologies like wind, solar and nuclear may not be able to address the problem quickly enough.
In addition, in developing countries, where the demand for cheap and reliable power is highest, fossil fuels continue to grow in usage. China has more than 1,000 operating coal plants, generating over 1 million megawatts of power, and accounting for roughly 60% of the country’s total installed generation capacity.
The country also has roughly 121,000 MW of coal-fired plants under construction – despite some of the worst air pollution in its major cities, in the world.
So while the battle between coal proponents and detractors continues hot and heavy, there’s one part of the move to renewables few talk about:
Moving out-of-work miners into renewables jobs
What do you do with thousands of coal miners who are tossed out of the mine?
Coal mining directly employs over 7 million workers worldwide (54,000 in the U.S. as of December 2018) and benefits millions more through indirect jobs. However, to meet the 1.5°C climate target called for in the so-called Paris Agreement, coal’s share in global energy supply should decline between 73-97% by 2050.
But what will happen to coal miners as coal jobs disappear? Answering this question is necessary to ensure a fair transition and to ensure politically-powerful coal mining interests do not impede energy transitions, according to a recently published peer-reviewed report, written by a group led by University of British Columbia professor Sandeep Pai, appearing in the Environmental Research Letters journal.
Miners don’t move to find work.
Some people suggest coal miners can transition to renewable jobs. However, the report states historic analyses of coal industry declines show miners do not move when they lose their jobs.
The report focused on China, India, the U.S. and Australia – which, combined, represent 70% of global coal production.
The scientist-investigators investigated:
• The local solar/wind capacity required in each coal mining area to enable all coal miners to transition to solar/wind jobs
• Whether there are suitable solar/wind power resources in coal mining areas in order to install solar/wind plants and create those jobs
• The scale of renewables deployment required to transition coal miners in areas suitable for solar/wind power.
“We find that with the exception of the U.S., several gigawatts (several thousand megawatts) of solar or wind capacity would be required in each coal mining area to transition all coal miners to solar/wind jobs,” the report states.
Moreover, while solar has more resource suitability than wind in coal mining areas, these resources are not available everywhere.
Coal mining areas not suitable for wind farms
In China, the country with the largest coal mining workforce, only 29% of coal mining areas are suitable for solar power, the study found. In all four countries, less than 7% of coal mining areas have suitable wind resources.
“Further, countries would have to scale-up their current solar capacity significantly to transition coal miners who work in areas suitable for solar development,” according to the study.
In the U.S.:
• Nearly two-thirds — 62% — of coal-mining areas are suitable for solar power.
• To ensure miners in those areas could transition to solar, 143,000 MW of solar power — nearly three times America’s current solar capacity — would be needed.
• That would mean at least two-thirds of current coal miners could transition to solar-energy jobs — assuming the buildout and necessary retraining — occurs.
• Wyoming is the only state in the U.S. where wind jobs could be a feasible option for coal miners, according to the report.
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