Solar energy provides about 1.3 percent of America’s electricity, but it’s now responsible for more than twice as many jobs as coal, gas, and oil power combined.
CIRCA — This clean-energy labor boon is now a ray of hope for laid-off coal miners in the Pittsburgh area. Wylie Koontz, a laid-off coal miner, said it was one of the industries hiring.
That's because solar is a pretty labor-intensive process. The jobs come from designing and manufacturing the panels, and marketing and installing them.
A college dropout, Koontz found out firsthand how unstable 21st-century coal mining jobs are. “I went to college because I had a baseball scholarship so I thought I’d give college a try,” Koontz said. “It just wasn’t for me so I got a job at the coal mine and got laid off in July of 2016.”
After getting laid off, 23-year-old Koontz spent two months unemployed before finding another position in the energy sector. “Before I got the job I didn’t know anything about solar.”
Skills in the mine are useful in the solar industry. “They’re usually fairly agile working from the mines,” said Marty Bovee of Energy Independent Solutions (EIS) Solar. “They’re either working in cramped or high spaces”
Coal still produces one-third of all of the energy consumed in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 250,000 people working in the coal industry in the early 1980s. As of October of 2016, that number dropped to 50,000.
According to the 2017 U.S. Energy and Employment Report, the solar industry has seen a 5,000 percent growth in net energy generation over the last decade and is now responsible for more than twice as many jobs as coal, gas, and oil power combined.
Solar power companies searching for employees look to energy competitors for help. But like many former manufacturing hubs that line the Rust Belt, Pittsburgh has gone through an economic upheaval in the last half century that has left generations of blue collar workers searching for work.
“Everybody’s pretty much just worried about getting laid off,” Koontz said. “Ten years ago they probably didn’t, but they do now.”
“We’ve gotten lots of applicants who are either laid off miners or laid off steelworkers,” Bovee said.
There were 3,061 people employed in the solar industry in Pennsylvania in 2016, up 23 percent from a year ago. The emergence of solar may be a ray of hope for workers whose skills may be out of date. However, coal miners who saw their once healthy industry fall apart remain guarded about the future.
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