Investment in renewable energy has steadily risen, and consequently, so have the number of renewable energy workers has risen. As the nation transitions from traditional fossil fuel to clean energy sources, one looming question remains: What will happen to the workers in the coal and oil industries?
By the Numbers
The renewable energy and alternative fuel industries employed close to 1 million Americans in 2016, compared to 200,000 workers in the combined fossil fuel industries of coal, gas and oil. Including part-time employees in these statistics raises the total number of Americans working in renewables by another 2 million.
Solar energy employed the largest number of renewable workers, with nearly 360,000 part-time and full-time employees. Wind power came in second, with 100,000 employees. By contrast, the coal industry employed just over 86,000 workers, followed by the oil and petroleum industry, which employed more than 12,000 workers in 2016.
In 2016, solar energy added over 74,000 new positions, and wind energy added nearly 25,000, for a combined total of nearly 100,0000 new jobs in the renewables field.
Over 700,000 Americans work in positions focused on improving the fuel efficiency of vehicles or investigating alternative fuels for transportation.
Not included in these statistics are the 2.3 million workers employed in distribution, energy storage and transmission in the energy efficiency sector.
Employment in the wind power sector grew by 32 percent in 2016, while employment in the solar power industry increased by 25 percent. As a whole, the renewable job market is expected to increase by nine percent next year. The coal industry has steadily decreased the number of job opportunities offered since 2012. The fossil fuel market, including coal and oil, is expected to decline by three percent over the next year.
The loss of fossil fuel positions is due, in part, to multiple coal plants shutting down in recent years. Competition with inexpensive natural gas, stricter federal regulations and increased interest in renewable energy are the primary reasons for the closures.
Future of Coal and Oil
As opportunities in the coal and oil industries decrease, workers will need to learn new skills to transition into the renewables market if they wish to remain in the energy sector.
The renewables market offers positions for recent graduates and trained managers transitioning from coal plants and the oil industry. However, skilled laborers looking for new opportunities would need additional training to make this change. As governments push to decarbonize their economies, they should also consider how to transfer the energy industry workforce.
Unfortunately, renewable energy sources are not equal throughout the country. The Midwest is a leader in wind power due to the high number of wind resources, while California and Nevada lead the way in solar power.
West Virginia and Wyoming are the two leading states for coal energy production and lack the same access to renewable energy resources. Nearly three percent of Wyoming’s and two percent of West Virginia’s workforce are employed in the coal industry.
As the nation moves toward carbon-free sources of energy generation, job opportunities will shift from the coal and gas industries to the renewable energy sector. For workers to take advantage of these new opportunities, they will need to learn the new skills required to qualify for these positions.