A couple days ago, I asked this question of my environmental science students: “Given that West Virginia has about 1.8 million people, how many of them do you think are employed by coal companies?” What would you guess? The responses of my high school students ranged from 600,000 to 1.2 million. Those were high estimates, but would you guess that only about 15,000 residents of West Virginia are employed in the coal industry? The U.S. Energy Information Administration calculates the number of coal mining jobs in all of Appalachia to be just under 38,000; East of the Mississippi River that number is under 50,000, with a U.S. total of 66,000 coal mining jobs in 2015. In 1985, there were about 178,000 jobs in coal mining, so the trend is downward. Contrast that to the number of jobs being created in the renewable energy sector: Fortune estimates that 174,000 U.S. residents were employed in the solar industry alone in 2014, and the International Renewable Energy Agency reports that there were 769,000 total jobs in the U.S. renewable energy sector in 2015. A recent New York Times article states that Elon Musk, of Tesla and Solar City, has created nearly 35,000 jobs in manufacturing green energy components all by himself.
Our president-elect campaigned quite successfully as one who would “bring back coal,” and “kill” the Clean Power Plan (if implemented, the CPP would undoubtedly lead to less electricity with coal) when coal is not coming back. Economists and even electricity-generation executives agree that coal is on its way out, and for good reasons. First and foremost, for electricity generators, coal is more expensive than natural gas, which is now abundant given wide-spread use of hydraulic fracturing. For those concerned about greenhouse gas emissions and climate change (and every one of us should be concerned!), the stake in the heart of coal is that it produces twice the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions (mining, construction, generation, decommission, etc.) as natural gas, twenty times that of solar photovoltaic, and forty times that of wind. GHG emissions is only part of the story, because the use of coal as a power source brings numerous external costs, such as reduction in life expectancy (particulates, sulfur dioxide, mercury, etc.), ecosystem loss and degradation, loss of IQ (mercury), and hospital respiratory admissions, to name a few. Never mind the Clean Coal campaigns in the coal fields of Appalachia—coal is not clean!