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The Blue-Collar Workers Going Green

Socially conscious and transient, the new blue-collar face of the green energy movement sees opportunities where their elders don’t. Now can they save small-town America?

In 2017, a $372 million mirage bedeviled the small town of Pikeville, Kentucky — one of the nation’s leading coal and natural gas producing counties.

That year, EnerBlu, a California battery company, had plans to build a factory in the small town of 6,000, with the promise of hiring 875 people in the heart of Appalachia. The announcement was made to a packed room of more than 250 people at the Pikeville Expo Center, and the Lexington Herald Leader championed the project as a “watershed in efforts to diversify the beleaguered economy of Eastern Kentucky.” According to the same report, “officials used words like historic and revolutionary to describe the project.” Then governor of Kentucky, Matt Bevin, called the plan “the front end of something truly transformative for Eastern Kentucky.” Another state representative noted that he’d “dreamed of this day.”

For decades, the people of Pikeville had watched as a renewable energy future eroded their way of life. In the six preceding years alone, the number of coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky had gone from 14,301 to 3,896. Pikeville, having lost 61,000 jobs since 1948, had, for years, been a community that was disappearing. 

But on that day in the Expo Center, the ashes were worth something. EnerBlu executives noted in a blog post that Pikeville — a town rooted in coal — “has a population with a strong work ethic, loyalty and tenacity — all qualities employers look for.” They spoke of a “workforce with a strong understanding of Direct Current power, complex machinery and robotics operations in production environments,” per a 2018 report in Renewable Energy World

Pikeville had the potential to become a prototype — a coal town with dwindling coal jobs transformed into a bastion of renewable energy. In this small town, the promise of a seamless, perhaps even national transition from a coal-powered blue-collar workforce into a green one was alive and well.

Not even two years later, in June 2019, embroiled in several lawsuits alleging fraud and without having created a single job, EnerBlu filed for bankruptcy. The miracle had fallen apart. 

The story of Pikeville’s near-transformation didn’t make national headlines — in a town of diminishing opportunity, this was just business as usual. But in this tale of paradise found and then lost, the dream of a reinvigorated, retooled blue-collar class manning the renewable energy industry of tomorrow had suffered another decisive blow. It was a failure, sure, but it was also a reminder that the blue-collar workforce of the past, shaped by coal mines and their surrounding communities, is unlikely to be a part of the renewable energy revolution.

By some estimates, the Green New Deal would create up to 30 million jobs. Already, according to E2’s 2019 report on clean jobs, nearly 335,000 people work in the solar industry alone, compared to 211,000 working in coal mining or other fossil fuel extraction. According to a 2018 report in Forbes, the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that “America’s two fastest-growing jobs through 2026 will be solar installer (105 percent growth) and wind technician (96 percent growth).”

This, coupled with the fact that more than 6,000 coal mining jobs were lost in March and April 2020 alone — more than at any other time since the Eisenhower presidency, and despite Donald Trump’s promise to revive the coal sector — makes an obvious economic case for transitioning what’s left of the coal industry workforce into the burgeoning renewable energy industry. This is, after all, a “population with a strong work ethic, loyalty and tenacity.” 

And yet, according to Sandeep Pai, a doctoral student in the Institute of Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia, the hope of a blue-collar transition in coal country isn’t based in reality. “Think about where coal is declining,” says Pai. “Coal is declining in West Virginia, Kentucky and Indiana. Where is solar growing? Half of the solar [industry] is in California.” In other words, when we talk about blue-collar workers in the solar industry, we’re talking about “a different breed of worker.” 

At 33, Chris Park has been a solar installer in California for two years. Unlike coal industry workers, who are largely part of a blue-collar lineage, most of the people on Park’s installation crew “come from all sorts of background” and typically “don’t last more than a year.” “Maybe like two or three guys,” he says. That is to say, the typical blue-collar energy job is transitory.

Before becoming a solar installer, Park was working in data entry but “wanted to do something that was meaningful.” “Learning about climate change and everything like that, I got concerned about it and I looked toward the solar industry,” he says. “I thought that would be a good place to build my career.” A college graduate, Park had “no experience whatsoever” prior to getting his NABCEP certification (a national certification for solar installers). 

Park began his career in solar installation at Sunrun, the largest solar company in the country, making $16 an hour. “I ended up getting fired from Sunrun because of a safety violation,” he says. So he applied to their rival, Vivint Solar. “I was able to get a starting wage there of $26 an hour,” he says. Last year he became a roofing foreman and the lead technician of his crew, and currently makes nearly $30 an hour. Most of his coworkers, he says, are anywhere between 20 and 35 years old. “There’s one guy who’s 45,” he says. He’s never met a single person in this industry who used to work in fossil fuels. 

According to Pai, the bulk of renewable energy jobs are in installation, construction and manufacturing. But since 75 percent of solar manufacturing work is happening in China, most of the available labor jobs in the solar industry stem from a variety of smaller construction and installation companies. “The workers already have been working in the construction industry, or they typically come from that background,” he says. For most of them, Pai says, it’s temporary, adding that of course, “engineers and the executive level people in the solar industry come from anywhere.” 

Gabriel Lewis is a solar installer in Colorado — another state where the solar industry is thriving. Prior to working in solar, Lewis was a system administrator at a local food co-op. “Our food co-op went bankrupt,” he says. “A friend of mine happened to be starting a construction company, so I learned on the ground floor about it.” He began his career in 2011, making $12 an hour. “There’s a shortage of electricians,” he says, so the solar company at which he works paid for him to go to school and get his electrician’s license. Today, he makes $29.50 an hour. But at 40, he, too, suggests that the typical solar installer is a younger man. “They’re usually like, twentysomethings, and they just want to do good for the world,” says Lewis. “They figure solar is a way to start a socially conscious kind of career.”

But having a “socially conscious” career isn’t exactly a traditional blue-collar concern — understandably, fossil fuel industry workers are generally more concerned with more tangible factors like job security, permanence and a union to help make sure their best interests are considered. According to Pai, “the presence of unions in the solar industry is quite low.” He tells me a story about being invited to the World Federation of Trade Unions conference, “basically a federation of trade unions from around the world.” “Before starting I said, ‘You’re from like, 60 countries around the world, how many of you represent workers from the oil industry?’ Then I asked about coal and hydro, etc. This was 2018. Then I asked, ‘Okay, how many of you represent solar industry workers or wind industry workers?’ There wasn’t even a single hand.”

This, Pai suggests, will be a significant hindrance when workers in the solar industry try to organize themselves and ask for better wages and welfare moving forward. With blue-collar coal workers, many of whom are often neighbors living in the same community, organization was easier to achieve. “It’s concentrated, it’s unionized, there is a class, there is a culture,” says Pai. The real difference between blue-collar workers in coal versus blue-collar workers in solar is, according to Pai, a difference between the “temporary versus the permanent.”

It’s not impossible to fathom building a bridge connecting the blue-collar workers of the past to that of the future energy industry. In fact, the conclusion of a 2016 study by senior associate energy efficiency engineer Edward Louie and his colleague Joshua Pearce, found that it would cost around $180 million to retrain the vast majority of U.S. coal workers to switch to solar-related positions. Which sounds like a lot of money until you consider the fact that in Appalachia communities alone, public health burdens from coal mining cost $74.6 billion each year. 

But the greater issue, according to Louie, is a geopolitical one. “If you spent your whole life in a coal mining town, and they’re generally quite rural, the concept of selling your house and picking up and moving to a more urban environment — where much of the solar industry currently exists — to compete in the urban solar business is highly unlikely,” says Louie. “It’s economical, but there’s the sense of place and family and everything that keeps people tied to a certain community. What feels at home is something that’s pretty important to think about.”

At first glance, rural communities — many of which have long been dominated by blue-collar workers — would appear to be an ideal fit for an emerging solar company. They offer a strong workforce, as well as plenty of space to build factories. But according to Louie, rural communities aren’t yet on the solar companies’ radar. “I think it has to do with picking the low-hanging fruits,” he says. “There’s still so many residential rooftops, so the solar potential is in city and suburban towns across America.” Which is why he thinks it will take time and more infrastructural development before these coal-dependent, rural small towns are reinvigorated for the renewable energy industry. 

Pai agrees, telling me that when there is a coal mine or a power plant, the whole city revolves around it, which is simply not a facet of the solar industry at present. “Once the construction is done, it’s game over,” he says. “Maybe there is some royalty, maybe there are some tax benefits to the county, but there is no permanent job. If there is no permanent job, there is no cafe.” Which is why he’s “not sure if renewables can ever fully replace the blue-collar culture of a coal town.”

In West Virginia, another vestige of the coal industry, Dan Conant, is trying to build a new energy industry, “to make sure that we don’t get left behind in this region,” he says. Conant is the CEO and founder of Solar Holler, a solar company in Shepherdstown. Born and raised in West Virginia, Conant tells me that since the demise of coal, “we’ve had this brain drain going on for 70 years.” “Kids growing up here in West Virginia are always talking about getting out,” he says. 

Currently, Solar Holler employs 38 solar workers, less than half of whom work on the installation side. But while Conant is trying to help mitigate the economic transition from one energy source to another, there are, he admits, just so many limitations. “There’s a skill set associated with mining in its current form,” he says. “Largely, the coal mining industry in West Virginia these days is very focused on operating heavy machinery and dynamite and the large floaters and excavators, because it’s not a pickaxe and hand anymore.” It’s extremely difficult then, according to Conant, to take folks with heavy machinery skill sets and a six-figure salary background and strap them onto a roof, doing the physical mounting of solar panels for $16 an hour. “They’re just different jobs,” he says. 

Equally problematic is the fact that, as Pai again emphasizes, the solar industry in the U.S. is lacking a strong factory presence, and doesn’t have the sort of community touchstone that defines a coal town. “All the focus is on coal workers and coal power plant workers,” says Pai. “But it’s not about only those jobs, it’s about the whole community. If, let’s say, there’s a county with 5,000 direct energy industry jobs. There will be at least five times more indirect jobs of people who are supplying equipment, supplying explosives.” Solar companies, in their current form, just don’t offer the same sort of community investment.

Conant has noticed a similar phenomenon. “With the solar industry, ultimately what we’re doing is providing electricity for what you need right there in that place,” he says. “When we’re putting in solar on a home, it’s to provide electricity for that home or for that business. So it’s not like you can just take a coal town and replace it with a solar town. The solar industry is big, but it’s very spread out.”

Ultimately, Pai says that energy transition will create lots of winners in terms of energy efficiency jobs, energy generation jobs and manufacturing jobs, particularly in renewable energy hubs like California and Colorado. “But it will create a lot of losers as well,” he says. “And that will be the blue-collar workers of yesterday.” 

It is this truth — perhaps one of the more jarring realities of the renewable energy evolution — that’s so often ignored. On the one hand, there is simply no other choice but to end our reliance on fossil fuels, and any effort to the contrary is a futile attempt to swim against the tide. But the tragedy is that, if this country is to commit to a renewable energy future, it must plainly admit that those blue-collar workers that gave so much of themselves to power this nation over the last century and a half are geographically obsolete — that the towns that they live in are not, and will likely never be, primed for a solar or wind takeover. 

The solar industry, despite its plentiful supply of blue-collar jobs, isn’t really looking in the direction of established, rural blue-collar communities. As the folks in the town of Pikeville know all too well, suggesting things could be different is almost certainly wishful thinking.