What a year it has been! It was just over a year ago that we went into an economic slump because of Covid-19. Many jobs were closed down to reduce levels of virus transmission, and we have had very high levels of unemployment. Fortunately, it looks like there is hope that the situation is improving and will continue to do so.
Employment numbers in the energy fields fell. This was especially true for coal miners, many of whom had to deal with both confined work spaces and a failing market. It was also especially true of the oil and gas industry, because people were not traveling much. It was true for clean technology as well, but not nearly as badly. With about 500,000 clean technology jobs lost, well over 350,000 were in areas of efficiency, such as insulation installers. And in some areas, such as wind technicians, the pandemic has had a relatively minor effect or none at all, as record capacity of solar photovoltaics (PVs) and wind turbines were installed.
There are a number of forces at play for energy jobs, and we would do well to understand them. First off, the coal industry has been on a decline that was predictable over a hundred years ago, when the U.S. Navy stopped ordering coal-fired ships. The industry could be said to have peaked in 1923, when there were 863,000 coal miners in this country. In 2017, when Donald Trump was inaugurated after promising to restore coal jobs, there were fewer than 52,000 left. By the time he left office, the number had dropped to about 46,500.
Coal lost jobs to the oil and gas industry, particularly with fracking making prices low for gas. That, however, might not last. In fact, Morgan Stanley says that the oil industry will soon be obsolete. A recent article at CleanTechnica said, “In a recent survey of institutional investors, Morgan Stanley found that 17% of respondents think ICE [internal combustion engine] technology has zero or negative value today, and 60% said its value was only slightly positive” (www.bit.ly/3tgkdUg).
What we are seeing is a change in the fundamentals of energy. The cost of electric vehicles has been falling steadily and is expected soon to be at parity with ICE-powered vehicles, but the cost of operating them is so low that they already represent a long-term savings. Meanwhile, wind power and solar PVs are producing electricity at a fraction of the cost of what is needed to support coal and nuclear plants. Batteries are making renewable energy a more constant source of supply, and their electricity is cheaper than what comes from many natural gas plants. A news article in the November, 2020 issue of Green Energy Times, “Late News on Energy and Storage,” has more on this (www.bit.ly/3eC34Ak).
The Energy Information Administration released a report in January stating that it expected only 16% of generating capacity added in 2021 will use fossil fuels, all of it burning natural gas. Solar would account for 31%, wind would provide 39%, and batteries would cover 11%. Of the remaining 3%, almost all would come from expected new nuclear capacity (www.bit.ly/3byVtRp).
Jobs should be created for mitigating damage from the fossil fuels industry. Abandoned coal mines and oil wells need to be secured and closed, a job often best done by people who had worked in those industries. Estimates are that there are 300,000 to 760,000 uncapped oil wells in Pennsylvania alone, and that this represents only about 15% of the country’s abandoned wells, according to a report in the Observer-Reporter, a newspaper in that state (www.bit.ly/38EkZT6).
At the same time, jobs are to be created for work in renewable energy. The push for growth in renewable energy comes for many important reasons. Climate change is a very important issue. Also, the economics of renewable energy would have it crowding fossil fuels out of the economy even without a climate crisis. And, of course, we have to recover from Covid-19, offering jobs to a large number of people who are unemployed.
The change in the way our energy is produced will mean hiring a lot of people, and our new Energy Secretary, Jennifer Granholm, has a bit to say about that. CNN ran an article titled, “Biden’s energy secretary vows to ‘leave no worker behind’ in the clean energy revolution” (www.cnn.it/3eBPYmy). This new administration has a stated intention of seeing to it that the people and communities that might suffer from the fall of fossil fuels will have jobs and opportunities as we go forward.
This, of course, brings up the issue of how good those jobs will be. A report from E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs) goes into this in some depth (www.bit.ly/3cs9ZcQ). It shows that employment in the country’s renewable energy industry pays significantly more than median rates.
How many jobs will be created remains to be seen. With forces of government policy, the market, and public sentiment all favoring them, we can bet there will be a lot.