July 18, 2017
RIP Big Coal
Good news for the earth (and all its inhabitants)! Coal is over. It’s done. Finished. President Trump may have cited US coal jobs as one of his reasons for pulling us out of the Paris Climate Agreement, but here’s the thing: those coal jobs are never coming back. It’s essentially economic fact.
Consider this recent headline: “The entire coal industry employs fewer people than Arby’s.” And consider that the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum is switching to solar to save money on energy costs. Oh, the irony.
But while the planet is breathing a huge sigh of relief, out-of-work coal miners and their families are struggling. So what’s next for them and the regions where they live? Here are five solutions for coal miners when the coal mines become a thing of the past:
Breaking the Post-coal Code
Today there are fewer than 6,000 coal miners in Kentucky, a state where the coal industry long reigned supreme (that number was 16,000 only nine years ago). Some laid-off miners left the state to look for work. But others have stayed to kickstart new careers—as coders. That might not seem like the obvious career path for former miners, but we’re a long way from the days of pickaxes and flickering headlamps: mines today are highly technical operations and miners have had to develop increasingly sophisticated skills. It’s those skills that the owners of Bit Source, a tech startup, are counting on. When they advertised for coders, 1,000 applicants responded. Ten were hired and nine remain. True, that’s not a lot, but Bit Source has big plans—to turn Kentucky coal country into “Silicon Holler.”
As more and more coal companies go bankrupt, it’s clear that the fossil-fuel era is coming to an end. Solar and wind are coming on strong, but can the new clean-energy economy generate the kinds of jobs that have been lost? Current evidence suggests that the answer is yes. With some retraining, former coal workers could fairly easily transition to similarly skilled and technical jobs in the solar industry. And the good news is that solar jobs pay well (even the lowest-skill jobs pay a living wage), so laid-off miners and their families could get back on their feet again. Plus, in 2016 there were over 373,000 solar jobs in the US, versus just over 160,000 coal jobs.
The Winds of Change
Let’s take a look at what’s going on in Carbon County, Wyoming (no, we didn’t make that name up). Carbon County was home to the first coal mine in Wyoming 100 years ago, and soon, in a development loaded with powerful symbolism, it will host a huge new wind farm. Wyoming is the nation’s biggest coal producer, so it hasn’t typically offered much support to renewables (it actually imposes a tax on wind-energy production). But one wind turbine company, Goldwind Americas, is looking to convince Wyoming (and, eventually, officials in other states) that it should embrace the renewable-energy future today. They’ll be offering a free training program, which ought to be attractive to the hundreds of coal workers laid off in Wyoming last year.
From Coal Mine to Solar Farm
While coal mining did provide a decent salary for generations of workers, there’s nothing even remotely positive to say about its environmental legacy. Now that coal is over, can anything be done about all the abandoned mines? Well, in Kentucky, a coal company is looking to install a solar array at a former mountaintop-removal site. Remember mountaintop removal? As its name suggests, it’s when you essentially decapitate a mountain in search of coal and dump all the rubble into the valleys and rivers below, scarring the landscape permanently and altering and polluting waterways. (While Obama instituted new regulations meant to curtail that practice, Trump has rolled them back.) It’s a devastatingly destructive practice, all but irreversible. A solar farm won’t heal the wounds, but it could at least point a way forward, especially if, as the company promises, former coal miners are hired to do the work.
Reusing Old Mines
How else might abandoned mines be reused or retrofitted? They’ve been environmental and health hazards for so long, and now there’s increasing momentum on the local level to reclaim those lands and make use of them. We found some inspiration abroad: Germany started mining coal in the 1700s, but now it’s transforming some abandoned sites into parks and cultural spaces. They are also looking to use old mines to store green energy until it’s needed.
Say goodbye to coal and hello to a cleaner and economically diverse future. We love it when everybody wins.
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