As the number of coal mining jobs continues to decline throughout the U.S., more unemployed miners are finding work above ground — in the clean energy industry, ironically.
A group called The JOBS Project (now Sustainable Williamson) works throughout Central Appalachia to help local communities diversify its energy portfolio and help provide new business opportunities for workers. In February of 2011, the organization celebrated a milestone when a group of unemployed and underemployed coal miners installed rooftop solar panels on a doctor’s office in Williamson, WV. The array is expected to pay for itself within seven years.
Some coal mining families have been plagued with uncertainty since President Obama’s climate change proposal called for a reduction of coal-fired plants throughout the U.S. “It used to be you could do a dirty, hard job like coal mining and feel good about working hard and feeding your family. Now it’s like we’re doing some bad for the country,” a Virginia coal miner told The Daily Beast. As these workers become laid off from the coal mines, many struggle to find dependable work to support their families. This stresses the importance of having organizations step in to help these workers land on their feet in the push toward renewable energy.
Some coal-turned-clean-energy workers are realizing they can earn higher salaries than they did in the mines. Aside from more money, the health benefits of working in clean energy are an additional perk. A report by ScienceBlog predicts that a shift from coal to renewables like wind and solar energy could reduce as many as 1,300 job-related deaths in the next 10 years. Hazardous working conditions combined with the health risks associated with coal mining has made the profession the second most hazardous job in the U.S. with 27.5 deaths per 100,000 workers, ScienceBlog also reported.
In April 2013, the Solar Foundation released a report regarding solar jobs throughout the nation. The findings revealed that the solar energy sector employs 119,000 people in the U.S., and — using figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics — discovered that there are now more workers in the solar industry than there are coal miners.
“The question people in West Virginia keep coming back to has to do with scale,” reveals BBC World News. “Can renewable energy such as solar power provide the same number of jobs and the breadth of economic activity that coal has provided for so many years?”
Despite the resistance from some West Virginians who have relied on coal for economic prosperity for decades, even Williamson Mayor Darrin McCormick is considering solar panels on the city administration building to cut energy costs.
“I see it as a way of diversifying our economy, to increase job opportunities in the technology involved in installing [solar panels]," McCormick said. "Plus, you’re really lengthening our way of life by preserving our natural resources."
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