Solar and Wind vs. Coal: Who’s the Biggest Job Creator in Your State?

June 27, 2017 | 3:35 pm
Where are the jobs? Not where they used to be. Think renewables, not coal. (UCS analysis, based on DOE 2017)
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

When it comes to job creation in the power sector, our president keeps looking the wrong way. Nationally—and in almost every state—when coal and renewables face off, the bigger job creator in the power sector isn’t coal anymore; it’s solar and wind. The Trump administration has proclaimed this week Energy Week, but if renewables aren’t in a prominent position, the president and his associates are partying like it’s 1979 instead of 2017.

Coal mining jobs peaked in the late 1920s, enjoyed a brief partial rebound during the oil crises of the 1970s, and have dropped under every president but one since then. The downward trend has been clear for almost a century.

The good news is that some of the electricity sources that are out-competing coal create more jobs than coal does. (And just to be clear: solar and wind jobs are indeed a good thing, despite what some coal boosters might tell you.)

What do the jobs numbers say?

Workers readying a wind tower section in a Colorado steel facility

A new report from the US Department of Energy helps to put numbers on where we stand. The 2017 US Energy and Employment Report is loaded with information on all aspects of the country’s energy employment situation, from fuel extraction (mining or pumping) to manufacturing to electricity production.

So, how does coal stack up against the upstarts? Here are a couple of high-level findings from those numbers, about that relationship nationally:

  • Wind power is responsible for more jobs than coal mining. The wind industry accounted for 102,000 jobs in 2016. Coal mining meant 74,000 (and that number has dropped since then).
  • The solar industry employs more people than the whole of the coal industry. Even when you add in jobs associated with coal-fired power plants, coal gets handily beaten by solar all by itself. Coal overall accounted for some 160,000 jobs.* The solar power industry, meanwhile, helped create 374,000 jobs in the US, with most of those people—261,000—working on solar at least half time.

At the state level, the head-to-head gets even more interesting:

  • Solar jobs alone outnumber coal jobs in almost two-thirds of the states. The incredible growth in solar installations in recent years has been strongly felt on the labor side, too, with jobs on rooftops and in fields, in factories and in offices—good blue-collar jobs, and more.
  • Wind jobs outnumber coal jobs in more than 20 states. Like solar, wind means jobs in manufacturing, project development, installation, and a whole lot more. Wind added more than 15,000 jobs in 2016 alone, and the manufacturing side includes over 500 facilities in 43 states.
  • Solar and wind together beat coal in at least 40 states. Yup.

In fact, add in even a subset of hydroelectric power jobs,** and consider the “toss-up” states, where the job numbers are within about 20% of each other, and coal is the clear winner in only six states.

Solar jobs in action (Credit: J. Rogers)

Think about that: In almost every state in the union, from coast to coast and almost everywhere in between, solar panels and wind turbines and the power of water are bigger job creators than coal.

That’s very different from where we were a few years ago—and very different from what the outdated rhetoric from the White House and certain congressional leaders would lead you to believe.

We’re not done yet

And let’s be clear: That rhetoric is going to get more and more out of date. Some of those few remaining states in the Coal column are sure to switch to the Renewables column soon enough, as coal plants give way to other technologies (in Alabama, for example) and as the local Powers That Be finally acknowledge renewables’ jobs potential (think Ohio).

People are right to fight for Coal Country, but what they should be fighting for is economic diversification and good jobs in a true growth sector for those communities.

And if the Trump administration really wants to do Energy Week right, solar, wind, and other renewables need a prominent place in the spotlight. It’s high time President Trump realized that—increasingly, and across the U.S.—jobs in the power sector are about renewables, much more than coal.

*Counting all coal jobs as power sector-related, even though some coal goes elsewhere

**The DOE data include jobs figures only for “traditional” hydro, leaving out “low-impact” hydro, which means about one in seven hydro jobs isn’t showing up.

About the author

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John Rogers is energy campaign analytic lead at the Union of Concerned Scientists with expertise in clean energy technologies and policies and a focus on solar, wind, and natural gas. He co-managed the UCS-led Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative, a multi-year program aimed at raising awareness of the energy-water connection, particularly in the context of climate change, and motivating and informing effective low-carbon and low-water energy solutions.