Clean Energy Jobs Eclipse Coal Jobs in the Midwest

Even without reliably supportive policies that help clean energy grow, Midwestern coal-producing states already have many more jobs from solar and wind power than from coal production. There is also a promising economic opportunity to repurpose assembly lines in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio to manufacture renewable energy equipment.

There are substantial solar and/or wind resources available in the Midwestern states with large coal-producing areas - Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, North Dakota, and Illinois.

Clean Energy Creates Far More Jobs than Coal Does

In combination, solar power, wind energy, and energy efficiency create far more jobs than coal production does. Of course, these jobs require different skill sets and professional training.

Renewable energy is already an engine of economic development in the Midwest. If state policies were more supportive of it, it would be even more so.

Indiana’s energy efficiency portfolio standard created over 18,000 jobs before it was eliminated, said Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of Hoosier Environmental Council.

“You contrast that with coal mining, which is touted as a major economic sector in this state,” Kharbanda said. Data from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, which regulates coal, show Indiana has 2,500 jobs from the coal industry.  

“In our country, right now, there are about 210,000 solar jobs and only about 55,000 coal jobs,” said Howard Learner, president and executive director of Environmental Law & Policy Center. “You’re talking about installation jobs, jobs that can’t really be outsourced.”

Environmental Law & Policy Center is publishing a series of reports on renewable energy supply chains in Midwestern states.

This year, a report on Ohio’s clean energy supply chain was released. It showed 207 companies supply the solar industry there. 134 companies supply the wind industry. 20 companies supply both industries.

In 2015, a similar report on Illinois showed that 237 companies were involved in the solar supply chain. 170 companies were in the wind supply chain. In Chicago’s metro area, there were 13 major wind power corporate headquarters.

Continuing this series, a report on Indiana’s solar and wind industries is scheduled to be published during the next few months.

Retraining Workers Requires Investment

Transitioning from coal-industry work to renewable energy work is challenging.

“Some people can be retrained,” Learner said. “Some people will be able to adapt and learn new skills. For other people, it’s more of a challenge. You need to be practical and realistic about that. People who have worked in coal mines also have skills that are good for mine reclamation in their communities where the coal mines were. People value the work they’ve done in coal mines for many years.”

“We have a lot of people from Missouri who are formerly from the coal industry who are now working with renewable energy companies throughout Missouri,” said Zachary Wyatt-Gomez, executive director of Missouri Sustainable Energy Association. “We are seeing the writing on the wall.”

“We’re going to work with some of our trades folks and community colleges so there can be a really good training program for people who might lose their jobs with a coal plant shutting down,” Wyatt-Gomez said.  

Energy Resources and Potential Sites Are Extensive

“We feel like the capacity to grow renewable energy in the region is very high and we advocate for Ohio to have a piece of that action,” said Trish Demeter, managing director of energy programs at Ohio Environmental Council.

“The northwest portion of Ohio is very ripe for wind energy development,” Demeter said. “Freshwater offshore wind development in Lake Erie would be a great source of energy. Solar resources in the southern part of Ohio are very healthy. We hope to see more movement in that direction with larger solar arrays or utility-scale solar.”

Large industrial states such as Michigan, Ohio and Illinois have many buildings that provide spaces for solar rooftop installations, Learner said. Warehouses, stores, apartments and houses provide real estate where solar panels could be placed.

“We think energy efficiency plays a role as well,” Demeter said. “There’s a tremendous opportunity for us to cut energy waste. We advocate for reducing energy waste prior to figuring out if we need a brand new natural gas plant. We could be a lot smarter and a lot more resilient.”

Assembly Lines Could Be Retooled

The Midwest has many factories producing wind towers, gear boxes, turbine blades, and related equipment, Learner said. Assembly lines can be repurposed in states like Indiana and Ohio.  

“One thing we want to drive home is the scale of the economic opportunity of clean energy,” Kharbanda said. “Indiana is really very well positioned to be a leader in the renewable energy-jobs sector because of the huge crossover between the components that are necessary to make automobiles and the components that are necessary to make renewable energy systems.”

Kharbanda said he has seen companies begin to make brakes for wind turbines. Other companies that were making gear boxes have shifted over toward cleantech as well.

Indiana is ranked first in the nation in terms of the percentage of its gross state product that is attributed to manufacturing, Kharbanda said.

Policy Can Drive or Impede Renewable Energy

“We believe it’s a ripe opportunity to accelerate solar energy development,” Learner said. “If we get the policies right, combined with technological innovation, solar energy can move forward.”

Illinois passed a renewable energy standard that will take effect next year, Learner said. It will ramp up solar installations and continue the growth of wind power.

“I was in the Missouri House of Representatives,” Wyatt-Gomez said. He said it was an “uphill battle sometimes” educating Republican colleagues on his side of the aisle about the advantages of renewable energy compared to coal and natural gas. His political work led to his current advocacy position.

Ohio has been a policy battleground where wind energy is concerned, but is relatively open to solar power and distributed generation, Demeter said. “60 percent of our electricity comes from coal-fired power.”

A 2014 amendment in an Ohio budget bill “essentially zoned new wind energy projects out of the state,” Demeter said. “They enacted wind turbine setback requirements that were very, very far. It has totally put a chill on large-scale wind development. We haven’t seen any new wind farms being constructed.”

Demeter said the new requirements were not based on safety, health or scientific concerns.

“Generally speaking, people are more supportive of solar,” Demeter said. “At least the policy makers that are in charge. We see more from the utilities themselves trying to erode away the value proposition of rooftop solar.”

A bill, HB 554, was passed recently to extend the freeze of Ohio’s renewable portfolio standard and energy efficiency standard. According to Demeter, Governor John Kasich opposes it and is being encouraged to veto it.

“The governor is being very pragmatic and a moderate Republican, saying we need to have development of all energy resources,” Demeter said. “More extreme members of the general assembly are calling for a total quashing of clean energy in the state.”

“I think that Indiana needs to have a better policy climate for utilities to make a decision that favors renewables over the traditional baseload,” Kharbanda said. “The historic approach that happened in other states is a mandatory renewable energy standard, which Indiana doesn’t have.” Indiana is also considering “a competitive procurement policy in which utilities get a rate of return in signing agreements with independent power producers.”

Even though solar energy, wind power, and energy efficiency face substantial policy challenges in these coal-producing Midwestern states, their potential remains substantial – and the economic opportunities they could create are also impressive.

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