At its peak nearly 100 years ago, the coal mining industry in West Virginia employed around 400,000 workers. That number is now under 25,000. In Wyoming, coal production is actually increasing due to improved automation, but coal employment is not. The industry employs fewer than 6,000 people in the state—a number that is down slightly in recent years, and is dramatically lower than a high of almost 40,000 in the early 1980s.
No one expects renewable energy jobs to completely replace the fossil fuel jobs that have been lost in these states and elsewhere. But clean energy advocates in both areas are hoping that renewables can be one step on the path to more diversified, robust local economies. To make that happen, they’re training workers for what they believe are the energy jobs of the future.
“As costs fall dramatically, renewables are being adopted more and more, and so that is naturally creating a market demand for workers,” says Robert Godby, director of the University of Wyoming’s Center for Energy Economics & Public Policy. “Those workers are in numerous [renewable energy] sectors, and the two largest sectors are solar and wind. There’s been significant growing demand in those areas. It’s partly driven by policy, but the biggest driver has just been the affordability of those two technologies.”
“There have been a lot of programs to retrain workers,” Godby adds. “In renewables, you can enter the industry as a technician, through manufacturing, or through installation and construction. All of those things are happening. In different regions, there are different opportunities.”
Godby notes that wind service turbine technician tops the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ list of fastest growing occupations, with a projected growth of 108 percent between 2014 and 2024. Solar installer, while lower on the list, is one of the only nonhealthcare occupations to crack the top 50, with a projected growth of 24.3 percent over the same time frame.
“Companies are actively searching people out, whether they’re displaced energy workers, or someone else,” Godby says. “They just need workers.”
Former energy workers from the fossil fuels industries, Godby says, may be especially suited for these new jobs due to their previous experience. “There’s a huge amount of education and training that’s necessary [for renewable energy jobs],” he says. “[Displaced energy workers] may have skills and an awareness of safety processes—how to handle large equipment safely. They’ve operated heavy machinery in the past. Many of them will have skills that are transferable.”
Wyoming produces more coal than any other U.S. state. It also has abundant wind resources, but the wind energy industry has faced an uphill climb in the state, due in part to an unfavorable regulatory environment, including special taxes on wind energy. Still, wind power generation in Wyoming has increased by more than a factor of 10 in recent years, and the sparsely populated state now leads the country in per capita renewable energy production.
Wind power companies are looking at Wyoming as a site of potentially massive expansion—accompanied by new opportunities for workers, some of whom may have previously held jobs in the coal or natural gas industries.
This past summer, the U.S. arm of the Chinese wind turbine producer Goldwind held several information sessions in Wyoming about jobs in the wind sector, with promises of free, two-week training sessions to follow. David Halligan, chief executive of Goldwind Americas, says the company’s expectations for attendance at the sessions were “well exceeded.” Sessions have drawn between 40-100 attendees, which is a lot considering a town size of 5,000 people.
“I think the response has been overwhelmingly positive—not only from folks that are interested in training and getting a new opportunity in a new industry—but I think there’s strong interest from other parties within Wyoming,” Halligan says. “We’ve been talking with colleges that offer programs for wind technicians. We’ve had government folks out at our seminars, saying, ‘We really like what you’re doing,’ who think that wind can be good for the state. Broadly, I think there’s strong support for what we’re doing.”
While the training program doesn’t guarantee a job with Goldwind, it also doesn’t prohibit participants from seeking employment with other wind energy producers. But Halligan hopes that the training will result in Wyoming residents working for the company, either in their home state or elsewhere across the country.
The company is looking to kick off its first project in the state next year—a large installation in Medicine Bow. “We want to get ahead of the curve and get ready for the growth in [the Wyoming] market,” Halligan says. “Wyoming has some of the best wind resources in the country, but it also has one of the smallest installations of wind farms in the country. That is hopefully set to change.”