Tiffany Berger spent more than a decade working at a coal-fired power plant in Coshocton County, Ohio, eventually becoming the unit’s operator, earning around $100,000 a year.
But in 2020, American Electric Power closed the plant, and Ms. Berger struggled to find a job nearby that offered comparable pay. She sold her house, moved in with her parents, and decided to help run her farm in Newcomerstown, Ohio, about 30 minutes away.
They sell some of the corn, beans, and beef they grow, but it’s just enough to keep the farm going. Ms Berger, 39, started working part-time at a local fertilizer and seed company last year, earning just a third of what she earned. She said that she “had never dreamed” that the plant would close.
“I thought I was ready to get out of there,” Ms. Berger said. “It’s a power plant. I mean, everyone needs energy.”
The United States is experiencing a rapid shift away from fossil fuels as new battery factories, wind and solar projects, and other clean energy investments sprout all over the country. An expansive climate law that Democrats passed last year could be even more effective than Biden administration officials had estimated in reducing fossil fuel emissions.
Although the transition is expected to create hundreds of thousands of clean energy jobsit could be devastating for many workers and counties that have relied on coal, oil and gas for economic stability.
Estimates of the possible job losses in future years vary, but approximately 900,000 workers were directly employed by fossil fuel industries in 2022, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Biden administration is trying to mitigate the impact, mainly by providing additional tax breaks for renewable energy projects that are built in areas vulnerable to the energy transition.
But some economists, climate researchers and union leaders said they were skeptical that the initiatives would be enough. Beyond construction, wind and solar farms typically require few workers to operate, and new clean energy jobs may not necessarily offer comparable salaries or align with the skills of workers laid off.
Coal plants have been closing for years already, and the nation coal production has fallen from its peak in the late 2000s. US coal-fired generation capacity is projected to decline sharply at about 50 percent from current levels by 2030, according to the Energy Information Administration. around 41,000 the workers remain in the coal mining industry, up from 177,000 in the mid-1980s.
The demise of the industry is a problem not only for its workers, but also for communities that have long relied on coal for power. tax revenue. Lost revenue from mines, plants, and workers can mean less money for schools, roads, and law enforcement. TO recent article from the Aspen Institute found that from 1980 through 2019, regions exposed to coal decline experienced long-term reductions in income and employment rates, increased acceptance of Medicare and Medicaid benefits, and substantial declines in population, particularly among the younger workers. That “leaves behind a disproportionately older, sick and poor population,” according to the newspaper.
The Biden administration has promised to help those communities weather the shock, for both economic and political reasons. Failing to adequately help displaced workers could result in the kind of populist backlash that hurt Democrats in the wake of globalization as companies moved factories to China. Promises to restore coal jobs also helped Donald J. Trump win the 2016 electionsecuring him crucial votes in states like Pennsylvania.
Federal officials have promised create jobs in the hardest-hit communities and ensure that displaced workers “benefit from the new clean energy economy” by offering developers billions in additional tax credits to put up renewable energy projects in regions that depend on fossil fuels.
If new investments such as solar farms or battery storage facilities are built in those regions, called “energy communities”, developers could cover up to 40 percent of the cost of a project. Businesses that receive credits to produce electricity from renewable sources could get a 10 percent increase.
The Inflation Reduction Act also set aside at least $4 billion in tax credits that could be used to build clean energy manufacturing facilities, among other projects, in regions with closed mines or coal plants, and created A program That could secure up to $250 billion in loans to repurpose facilities like a closed power plant for clean energy uses.
Brian Anderson, the CEO of the Biden administration inter-institutional working group on energy communities, pointed to other federal initiatives, including increased funding for projects to recover abandoned mining land and relief funds to revitalize coal communities.
Still, he said the efforts would not be enough and that officials had limited funds to directly help more communities.
“We are standing right on the cusp of potentially continuing to outrun them again,” Mr. Anderson said.
Phil Smith, the chief of staff for the United Mine Workers of America, said tax credits for manufacturers could help create more jobs, but $4 billion probably wouldn’t be enough to attract facilities to all regions. He said he, too, hoped for more direct assistance for laid-off workers, but Congress did not fund those initiatives.
“We think it’s still something that needs to be done,” Mr. Smith said.
Gordon Hanson, an author of the Aspen Institute paper and a professor of urban policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, said he worried the federal government was becoming too reliant on tax credits, in part because companies would likely be more inclined to invest in growth. areas. He urged federal officials to increase unemployment benefits to distressed regions and funding for workforce development programs.
Even with the bonus credit, clean energy investments may not reach the hardest-hit areas because a wide range of regions meet federal definition of an energy community, said Daniel Raimi, a member of Resources for the Future.
“If the intent of that provision was to specifically provide an advantage to hard-hit fossil fuel communities, I don’t think it would have done that,” Raimi said.
Local officials have had mixed reactions to the federal efforts. Steve Henry, the executive judge for Webster County, Ky., said he believed they could attract investment in renewable energy and help attract other industries to the region. The county experienced a significant drop in tax revenue after the closure of its last mine in 2019, and now employs fewer 911 dispatchers and deputy sheriffs because officials cannot offer more competitive salaries.
“I think we can recover,” he said. “But it’s going to be a long recovery.”
Adam O’Nan, executive judge for Union County, Ky., which has one coal mine left, said he thought renewable energy would create few jobs in the area and doubted a manufacturing plant would be built because of the infrastructure. inadequate.
“It’s a little hard to see how it gets to Union County at this point,” Mr. O’Nan said. “We are better prepared for coal right now.”
federal and state efforts so far they have done little to help workers like James Ault, 42, who was employee at an oil refinery in Contra Costa County, California.for 14 years before being laid off in 2020. To keep his family afloat, he used up his pension and withdrew most of the money from his 401(k) early.
In early 2022, he moved to Roseville, California to work at a power plant, but was laid off again after four months. He briefly worked as a food delivery driver before landing a job in February at a nearby chemical manufacturer.
Now he makes $17 an hour less than at the refinery and can barely cover his mortgage. Still, he said that he would not return to the oil industry.
“With our move away from gasoline, I feel like I would be entering an industry that is dying,” Ault said.