US Employment in Wind, Solar and Coal Mining
US wind and solar industries now employ 5.6 times more people than coal mining
Per unit of electricity generated; solar employs 140 times more people than coal
An excellent resource is the Department of Energy's annual 'U.S. Energy and Employment Jobs Report'. According to the DOE’s second annual report tracking these employment trends (the 2017 edition released in January 2017), 6.4 million Americans now work in the “traditional energy and energy efficiency industries,” which added over 300,000 net new jobs in 2016 – representing 14% of the nation’s job growth.
The US Department of Energy's '2015 Wind Technologies Market Report' is a great reference document about the industry which also includes some fascinating employment data.
The report notes (Section 3 'Industry Trends' page 19) "the wind industry employed 88,000 full-time workers in the United States at the end of 2015". This is up from 73,000 in 2014: in other words annual jobs growth of 21 percent.
However the amount increased again in 2016 as noted in the aforementioned DOE employment report: the wind industry employs a total of 101,738 workers, which represents a 32 percent increase since 2015, the report says. The largest share of wind employment lies in construction, which accounts for 37 percent of the workforce. Manufacturing and wholesale trade follow at 29 percent and 14 percent, respectively.
Not too shabby.
In its 2015 'National Solar Job Census' the Solar Foundation reports the US solar industry continues to exceed growth expectations, adding workers at a rate nearly 12 times faster than the overall economy and accounting for 1.2 percent of all jobs created in the U.S. over the past year.
The Solar Foundation research shows solar industry employment grew 123 percent in the six years to end 2015 when it reached 209,000 people. However the aforementioned DOE report notes further rapid growth in 2016: "the sector saw a growth rate of about 25 percent for workers that spend the majority of their time on solar work". It notes 260,000 spend at least half of their time supporting the solar industry and 374,000 Americans spend "some portion of their time working to manufacture, install, distribute or provide professional services to solar technologies across the nation".
Of particular note is data on solar employment by state (also from the Solar Foundation). In 2015 California added 20,000+ solar jobs and, at the end of that year, employed 75,598 people.
This California total is more than the number of people employed in the entire US coal mining industry (52,800 - see below).
That is pretty incredible when you consider that in 2015 California solar generated 19.8 terawatt hours of electricity (TWh) versus coal which, nationwide over the same time period, generated 1,356 TWh. (For more on these California numbers: try this SaskWind post).
In short California solar supported 20 percent more jobs than US coal despite generating 70 times less electricity.
The coal industry is in retreat in almost every country around the world and certainly in the United States: over half of the country's electricity was generated by coal only 10 years ago and today it is less than one third. The industry has sought to blame this on excessive Government support for renewables. The reality? It's due mainly to cheap natural gas.
Regardless: employment in the coal industry has suffered.
June 2016: The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports (Table B-1, page 31) that employment in coal mining declined from 75,200 in July 2014 to 52,800 in June 2016. FYI: additional detail on coal sector employment is available from Table 18 of the US EIA's Annual Coal Report - the most recent edition of which, released March 2016, contains data for 2014.
Anyone in the coal industry interested in retraining for a position in solar should check out this great Vox article ('It would be cheap to retrain coal workers for jobs in solar') which references a study published in the Harvard Business Review and Energy Economics.
Pulling it all together...
There are two ways to consider it: one could compare the absolute number of jobs in each sector or, alternatively, the number of jobs created per unit of electricity generated. Both are valid and both tell slightly different stories;
Total employment. A simple comparison of numbers shows that each of the wind and solar industries already employ more than coal mining. In the case of wind it is 66 percent more: but even more impressive is solar which today employs almost four times more people than the coal industry.
Employment per unit of electricity generated. Looking at total employment really only tells part of the story because both wind and solar generate far less of America's electricity than coal. (NB: solar on this US Government site - showing electricity generation by fuel - is, at 0.6 percent, low as EIA includes only data from utility-scale facilities. If retail and commercial are included the total rises to 0.9 percent). Through 2015 coal generated almost exactly one third of the country's power while the corresponding figures for wind and solar were 4.7 and 0.9 percent respectively.
Specific generation by fuel was coal - 1,356 terawatt hours (TWh), wind - 191 TWh and solar - 39 TWh.
Given the employment numbers, which we already know, this means one person employed in coal mining is required to produce 25,700 megawatt hours (MWh) of electricity. That much electricity would meet the needs of 2,900 average Saskatchewan homes.
But what is really interesting is how many people are needed to generate the same amount of electricity using wind (just under 12) and solar (almost 140). In other words, and per unit of electricity generated, wind employs 12 times more people, and solar 140 times more, than coal.
So: the next time someone complains about job losses in the coal sector; it may be worth reminding them about the many more jobs coming out of the rapidly expanding wind and solar industries.