Pathways to a Just Energy Transition

Last September, I convened one of 14 listening sessions on Pennsylvania’s path to complying with the Clean Power Plan in Greene County, Pennsylvania, in the heart of Pennsylvania’s soft coal country. That evening, I heard from elected officials, trade groups, and—most importantly—coal miners and their families.

I’ll never forget the impassioned testimony of those mining families. They were worried about losing their livelihoods and their way of life in a region of the Keystone State where coal mining is not only the bedrock of the regional economy, but is multigenerational in families, and central to local culture.

The fears of those miners and their families were justified. The United States and fossil-fueled states like Pennsylvania are in the midst of an energy transition. It’s happening rapidly—ahead of proposed regulations—and the pace of change will only accelerate. Indeed, clean energy jobs in Pennsylvania already outnumber jobs in the coal, oil and natural gas sectors combined.

But what about those miners and their families? Where will family-sustaining jobs in Greene County come from when the last coal mine is closed?

That’s an incredibly important question for Pennsylvania. We must have a just transition to the clean energy economy for those miners and their families. They cannot be left behind.   

It will take enlightened and aggressive public policy to ensure that doesn’t happen. Fortunately, there are opportunities readily at hand.

Land reclamation can immediately benefit the environment and scores of communities in Pennsylvania and in other coal mining states—and put laid-off miners back to work.  The Power + Plan and the RECLAIM Act would be transformative for the coal regions and our environment. Both should be enacted. The former proposal is languishing, and the latter is, bafflingly, not supported by Pennsylvania’s Republican Congressional delegation.

Another opportunity is presented in a new study. 

Retraining Investment for U.S. Transition from Coal to Solar Photovoltaic Employment  looks provocatively at the idea of retraining all U.S. coal workers to work in the rapidly-growing solar industry.

As lead author Joshua M. Pearce writes in the Harvard Business Review:

Our results show that there is a wide variety of employment opportunities in the solar industry, and that the annual pay is attractive at all levels of education, with even the lowest skilled jobs paying a living wage… In general, we found that after retraining, technical workers would make more in the solar industry than previously in coal. However, managers and particularly executives would make less.

The results of the study show that a relatively minor investment ($180 million to $1.8 billion, based on best and worst case scenarios) in retraining would allow the vast majority of U.S. coal workers to switch to solar-related positions.

The paper identifies a number of ways to pay for that training—among them, a state-level “coal to solar” transition program.  One potential source of revenue for such a program, as the Brookings Institution points out, is a permanent trust fund created with revenue from a much needed (in Pennsylvania) severance tax on natural gas production. This concept is similar to the West Virginia Future Fund enacted in 2014—championed by the West Virginia Budget and Policy Center. The idea of investing a portion of revenue derived from today’s resource extraction into building tomorrow’s economy is a complement to the conservation trust fund concept that I proposed in 2010 when I was PA Secretary of Conservation and Natural Resources, and that I discussed in this series of blog posts.

Land reclamation, job retraining, and investment in coal communities are essential pathways to ensuring that Pennsylvania’s ongoing transition to the clean energy economy is a just one.

The miners of Greene County and their families are waiting.

John Quigley

Senior Fellow, Kleinman Center
John Quigley is a senior fellow at the Kleinman Center and previously served on the Center’s Advisory Board. He served as Secretary of the PA Department of Environmental Protection and of the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.