In coal country and elsewhere across the United States, workers are signing up to learn the necessary skills for jobs in clean energy.
WRITTEN BY Calvin Hennick

Top: Clean energy is taking the place of the fossil fuel industry in many parts of the country. Above: Scott Rowland, vice president of engineering at Goldwind USA, begins a climb up the 200-ft tower. Photo: Craig Lassig

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.


Robert Godby is the director of the University of Wyoming’s Center for Energy Economics & Public Policy.

“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.


David Halligan is the chief executive of Goldwind Americas.

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.”


Scott Rowland, vice president of engineering at Goldwind USA, exiting the top of the wind turbine.

Of the world’s largest four wind turbine producers, Goldwind lags behind the other three in U.S. market penetration, Godby says, and so it makes sense for the company to take a proactive role in training workers. “Goldwind is a new company, relatively, to this landscape,” Godby says. “They’re going to need workers. They have to either train them themselves, or poach other people.”


The economic impacts of large wind farms are even more significant than they first appear. While wind turbines do require some ongoing employment for maintenance, wind farms aren’t like coal mining, with workers needed to constantly extract more fuel. The majority of the labor, Godby says, comes up front in the form of building and installation—necessitating support workers, delivery drivers, concrete pourers, crane operators, and other construction workers.


“It’s like having a really large highway project,” Godby says. “Those employees don’t get listed as wind workers. But when you talk about direct and indirect jobs, renewable energy affects a lot of areas.”


Although Wyoming produces the bulk of the country’s coal, no state is more closely linked to coal production in the popular imagination than West Virginia. Utter the words “coal country,” and many people picture sooty, hard hat–wearing workers emerging from the mines of Appalachia.


Perhaps this inextricable association is due, at least in part, to how completely West Virginia’s economy relied for many decades on coal production.


“All the gas stations, all the hotels, all the marketing firms, even, it was all about coal,” says Brandon Dennison, chief executive of Coalfield Development, a West Virginia organization that aims to retrain workers for careers in five different industries, including solar energy. “Coal dominated. That’s the problem of not having a diversified economy. Getting out of that situation is going to take a long time.”


Coalfield trains people in solar installation in a controlled setting, and then gives them on-the-job experience. So far, the group has trained just about 20 people, with another cohort of 10 set for training this winter.


Dennison acknowledges that those numbers are a drop in the bucket compared to the thousands of coal jobs that have disappeared from West Virginia in recent decades.


“That’s not actually a bad thing,” he says. “The problem with our economy is, we got hung up on one industry, and that’s all we had. My vision is a more diversified economy.”


“The solar market is still so small here that we’re trying to simply grow the market, and as the market grows, we know we’re going to need more trained people to fill it,” he adds. “In a rough regulatory environment, our solar sales double every year. So there’s demand for it.”


Dan Conant is chief executive of Solar Holler, a West Virginia solar installation company that helps to train and employ some of the people that Coalfield works with. He agrees that solar energy jobs alone won’t come close to replacing lost coal jobs.

Coalfield Development Corporation workers install solar array panels.


“Every person that we hire and train and give full-time work in the industry, they then become an ambassador for solar.” – Dan Conant
Brandon Dennison is the chief executive officer of Coalfield Development Corp.

Brandon Dennison is the chief executive officer of Coalfield Development Corp.

“I really shy away from the idea that this is going to be a silver bullet,” Conant says. “Part of the problem is that for so long, we were so dependent on coal. One of our challenges is how do you diversify the economy? That’s not just replacing all those jobs with one thing. That doesn’t get you out of your predicament.”


“Renewable energy is a big piece of [the solution],” he adds. “But I don’t want to make it seem like this is the thing that leads the state out of economic crisis.”


When Conant started his company four years ago, he says, there were fewer than 20 people in the solar energy industry in the entire state. Today, his company employs 16 people, and he says there are now around 100 people employed in solar jobs in West Virginia—although some estimates put that number as high as 300 according to Solar Jobs Census.


Solar Holler started out using creative financing programs to complete solar installations at nonprofit organizations, but now does the bulk of its work at private residences. The small size of the industry, Conant says, creates a sort of chicken/egg problem, with a lack of both job opportunities and trained workers to fill them.


“The last thing we wanted to do is train folks for jobs that didn’t exist,” Conant says. “We’ve been really mindful of trying to keep the workforce and project demand in close alignment. One of the challenges with any job retraining effort is, we try not to get too far ahead of ourselves. Literally, the industry didn’t exist in the state. We didn’t have the workforce, and it was hard to go out and sell systems until we did have the workforce.”


Workers who train with Solar Holler, Conant says, receive basic electrical apprenticeship experience, along with training in basic construction, mounting systems, system design, and energy analytics. “The real hands-on work is about all of the different mounting systems and how you wire all the systems correctly,” Conant says.


Before returning to his native West Virginia, Conant worked in the solar energy industry in Vermont. Because much of the electricity in Vermont comes from hydropower—as opposed to coal—Conant says he feels like he’s able to have a larger environmental impact by expanding solar offerings in his home state.

“Every single panel we install in West Virginia has the impact of 15 panels in Vermont, because you’re offsetting coal instead of hydro,” he says. “If you’re looking at this through an environmental lens, you really should be supporting programs in Appalachia.”


In addition to having an outsized environmental impact, Conant says, solar installations in West Virginia—and the jobs that come with them—help to win the hearts and minds of people in a place that has not traditionally been a hotbed of green energy activism.


Dan Conant is the founder of Solar Holler and a former advisor to the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative.

Dan Conant is the founder of Solar Holler and a former advisor to the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative.

“Every person that we hire and train and give full-time work in the industry, they then become an ambassador for solar,” Conant says. “That really changes people’s minds, when their kid or their parent is working in an industry. With a lot of the installations we’re doing, it’s the first time there’s ever been a solar installation in the town. We’re trying to expand the footprint, so it becomes less foreign and more familiar.”


Another potential benefit of training workers for renewable energy jobs: It could, over time, bring down costs in those sectors, says Dan Schwartz, director of the Clean Energy Institute at the University of Washington. In other markets where the solar energy sector is more mature, such as Germany, Schwartz says, “soft costs” for things like training and permitting are about half of what they are in the United States.


“Those costs typically make up more than two-thirds of the cost of doing a solar installation,” Schwartz says. “Through training, we have a tremendous opportunity to drop the cost of solar energy even further in the U.S.”
For communities that have lost fossil fuel jobs, Godby says, the pain goes beyond economics. “It’s a dramatic shift, and a tough one,” he says. “It requires whole communities to shift their entire focus, their entire outlook, and their entire identity.”


Dennison says he sees a generational divide between older out-of-work miners who spent decades in the coal industry, and younger workers whose identity isn’t so closely linked with the mines. “Miners under 35 are excited about the idea of reimagining our identity a little bit,” he says, “whereas for folks who’ve been in the mines for decades, or are close to retirement, it’s very hard for them to imagine something different.”


There is some acknowledgment, even by those in coal country, that some workers may ultimately have to relocate to find better opportunities. (California has somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 times as many solar energy jobs as West Virginia does.) But there is also the sense that clean energy jobs give former miners, and other laid-off employees from fossil fuels industries, a second chance at well-paying, meaningful work.
“With mining, we powered the country for a century, and we’re really proud of that,” says Dennison. “So to go from that to service sector work isn’t very empowering. Mostly, folks just want to work. They want to work for decent wages. And they want to work in jobs they can be really proud of.”


Schwartz says he is “so proud” to be working in an industry that allows him to partner with labor unions. “I know that the innovations of Ph.D. students in our labs are going to be feeding, truly feeding, the employment chain,” he says. “There are just not that many sectors of the economy where a high-tech innovation at a university lab provides so many broad benefits to so many folks in the economy. It’s a field that really spreads the benefits of innovation throughout the employment chain. It’s super exciting, and it feels really good.”


Conant says that the effort to diversify West Virginia’s economy is a race against the clock. “If people can’t get jobs now, they’re going to move away,” he says. “That could be to a bigger city in West Virginia, but it could be to a different state altogether. If we lose a worker to Columbus or Pittsburgh, it’s going to be next to impossible to get them back down the line.”


“It’s not just about the folks working in the coal industry,” Conant adds. “If folks move away because they’re not in the mines anymore, that’s not just them. It’s also their families. We realize that the industry is changing, and that those coal jobs are not coming back. But it shouldn’t mean that the entire state has to suffer, or that entire towns have to pack up. That’s what we’re working to prevent from happening.”

Green Energy Jobs By The Numbers

According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, 3.4 million Americans are directly employed by the clean energy industry—more than the 3 million Americans employed in the fossil fuels industry.


Employment in the clean energy industry increased by 18 percent between 2015 and 2016. Of the 3.4 million clean energy jobs, 677,544 are in renewable electric power generation and fuels jobs. Those jobs are distributed across five clean energy sectors:


373,807 jobs


101,738 jobs


65,554 jobs


5,768 jobs


130,677 jobs

SOURCE: “Fact Sheet: Jobs in Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency,” Environmental and Energy Study Institute, February 2017.