Experts say education and retraining key to successful transition to low-carbon economy

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ULL’s Mechanical Engineering Virtual Reality Lab uses a photovoltaic power plant model to facilitate virtual hands-on learning. The application teaches users how solar power is produced, converted and transmitted. Courtesy of The University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Energy Center.

By Sydney McGovern, Samantha Beekman, Josh Archote

Traditional energy generation is declining, and renewable energy is on the rise. 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that wind turbine service technicians and solar panel installers will be two of the fastest growing jobs in the United States through 2029.

The switch to a low-carbon economy is necessary to minimize the impacts of climate change. 

But with these changes comes a complex set of benefits and challenges, and perhaps no one feels these effects more than those working in coal, oil and gas. 

Coal production in the United States has steadily declined since 2009. In 2019, the country’s annual energy consumption from renewable sources exceeded coal consumption, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Erin Bates, social media administrator for the United Mine Workers of America, said that 40,000 coal mining jobs have been lost in the last decade or so and that today only about 50,000 people work in the industry.

“It’s not only affecting the miners. They’re losing good paying jobs with good benefits with good health care,” Bates said. “When these coal mining companies go bankrupt, they’re losing their livelihoods, along with the livelihoods of their wives and their children and the communities. This affects everyone.”

The same can be said for those working in oil and gas—especially in states like Louisiana, which has built a large part of its economy around oil, gas and manufacturing. 

While research shows that switching to renewable sources of energy will fuel economic growth and create new employment opportunities, the growth isn’t felt equally across the country. 

Environmental experts and university leaders say the key to leveraging new energy jobs in areas reliant on fossil fuels is retraining workers and providing education to those looking to join the renewable energy sector. 

Retraining the Workforce

To aid the transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy, education and retraining programs will be key, said Jonathan Miles, executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Sustainable Energy at James Madison University (JMU) in Virginia. 

Much of that responsibility will fall on higher education and renewable-focused programs like the one he heads at JMU, he said. 

“It’s a matter of universities enabling students to jump into the workforce,” Miles said. “By having programs at the collegiate level and access to experiences, ways of getting familiar with the industry, that’s going to enable you to be more competitive for these jobs that are cropping up every day.”

Miles said that transitioning the workforce is a challenge, but that it’s as much an opportunity for higher education and energy workers.

Virginia, a state traditionally reliant on coal, is experiencing a rapid transition.  

The Virginia state legislature recently passed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which established a mandatory renewable energy profile and goals to transition 100% of the state’s electric power to be sourced from non-carbon emitting sources by 2050. 

Miles said many of the stakeholders that once opposed the switch are now embracing it.  

“For many years, it felt like fighting an uphill battle, and now we feel like all the other parties caught up with us,” he said. “There’s much more of a consensus of ‘this is where we’re going,’ and it’s a matter of now just getting on with it.” 

That uphill battle is still happening in Louisiana, one of the largest polluters in the U.S.

Switching to Renewables in the Deep South

In June, the Louisiana State Senate debated whether to ask Louisiana Economic Development to suspend tax breaks to solar developments. Some lawmakers questioned or even derided the measure.

“I thought we were an oil and gas state the whole time I’ve been here,” said Senate Pro Tempore Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton. “If we’re choosing solar over oil and gas, nobody’s told me.”

Some Louisiana lawmakers have taken aim at Biden’s climate policies, seeking to make Louisiana a “fossil fuel sanctuary.”

Terrence Chambers, director of the Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Energy Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said the lack of government action to promote renewables has severely stunted Louisiana’s energy diversification process.

“We still think of ourselves as a traditional oil and gas state,” Chambers said. “And that’s kind of our identity. I don’t think that not very many people are asking themselves ‘how can I get into renewables’ yet.”

“We’re very much in a chicken-and-egg kind of situation where we don’t have the renewable energy companies coming here to Louisiana because we don’t have a trained workforce yet. But on the other hand, if you start training the workforce and they don’t have jobs to go to, then that also is a problem.”

Yet the renewable potential in Louisiana is strong. Solar energy is plentiful, and offshore wind offers double the amount of energy currently consumed by all the states that border the Gulf of Mexico, according to a study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Last month, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards testified before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, recommending changes in federal emissions and energy policies. Edwards stressed the growing importance of offshore wind energy production in the Gulf of Mexico.

 “As oil and gas production declines in the Gulf of Mexico, there is great opportunity to put our existing offshore workforce, assets, infrastructure, and know-how to work ramping up offshore wind in the Gulf of Mexico and around the nation. Louisiana is all in on offshore wind,” Edwards said.

This transition from offshore oil drilling to offshore wind development has already been put into practice using Louisiana’s industry expertise.

Edwards issued an executive order in November 2020 setting a goal for the state’s carbon emissions to be net-zero by 2050, and he announced plans at the inaugural meeting of his Climate Initiatives Task Force to develop offshore wind energy.

“This is not some ‘pie in the sky’ promise of economic opportunity. We already have an emerging offshore wind energy industry, and Louisiana’s offshore oil and gas industry has played a key role in the early development of U.S. offshore wind energy in the Atlantic Ocean,” Edwards said.

Louisiana manufacturers helped develop the nation’s first commercial offshore wind farm, Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island. Using its expertise in oil platforms, Houma-based Gulf Island Fabrication built bases for the nearly 600-foot tall wind turbines.

Chambers said a lot of the talent and infrastructure used in the traditional energy economy in Louisiana is transferable with additional training and resources.

The same skills used to build pipelines for the petrochemical industry can be applied to carbon capture and sequestration. Constructing offshore oil platforms and maritime vessels is applicable to the offshore wind industry. The machine shops that service traditional energy generation can make any kind of product if they have the blueprint.

“With just a little bit of extra training, we have people who are already skilled workers who can upgrade their skills a little bit, learn how to apply them to the renewable energy industry, and then they would be in a good position to do both kinds of jobs,” Chambers said.

‘We want to be part of the conversation’

One of the many hurdles that employees in traditional energy generation face as their industries decline is securing new jobs in renewable energy without relocating. While renewable energy is on the rise overall, Louisiana and Virginia aren’t experiencing the same surge as states like California.

Turning away from high-paying jobs with an array of benefits is another barrier to retraining.

“Most people in the [United Mine Workers of America] have not yet seen any renewable energy jobs that are being offered that are union paying and are going to give them the lifestyle that they had before, give them the benefits in the health care that they have before,” Bates said.

Jobs in renewable energy generally pay well above the median wage. But they don’t pay as much as jobs in traditional energy.

These differences don’t account for the extra price of retraining or relocating. Without scholarships or government subsidies, former coal, oil and gas workers would have to shoulder much of the education and technical training costs. And for many, the costs outweigh the benefits.

“We do have a career center where we’ll retrain our coal miners, but a lot of times these jobs that they’re going into pay barely $15 an hour, let alone pay them the salary that they were making in the coal mine,” Bates said.

Bates said that if governments provide resources and renewable energy companies invest in communities reliant on traditional energy, a smooth transition could happen.

“We think that if they plan this correctly, that there is some potential there,” Bates said. “We’re not saying we’re totally doom and gloom with the thought process. We think that it is the way of the future, and it is something that we’re going to need to prepare for.”

“They just need to take into consideration the damage that they’ve already done, and the damage that will be created if they do this transition too quickly without taking into consideration that people are going to hurt,” she added. “I think it can be done right, and that’s why we want to be a part of the conversation.”

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1 Comment

  • carol

    I know the switch is needed, but the road will long and rocky. Even in progressive places, like California, people are scared to lose their jobs – and don’t understand the concept of doing things another – better – way.

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