The number of workers at rural coal and nuclear power plants is dwindling as energy companies face pressure from natural gas and green energy producers, according to a report Monday from The Wall Street Journal.
Utility employment is falling at unprecedented rates and eroding a stable source of well-paying jobs in rural areas, and placing more pressure on President Donald Trump as he attempts to fulfill promises to save blue-collar jobs.
The Center for Energy Workforce Development, which represents major utility companies across the U.S., estimated earlier this year that total direct utility employment has fallen to 505,000 from 550,000 since 2006. Energy analysts argue the power sector will not be a major job generator that it was in the past, WSJ notes.
“The power sector is just not going to contribute to the economy in terms of jobs the way it once did,” Curt Morgan, president and chief executive of Vistra Energy, told reporters at the WSJ. Vistra, which is expected to merge with Dynegy, shuttered a power plant in Texas and a mine that supplied it with coal — the company’s decision to close the plant could affect the jobs of 450 people.
Vistra is also planning on creating one of the largest solar farms in the country in West Texas, one of the main hubs for the solar and natural gas industries. The plant will employ two people, which could be part-time jobs.
Part of the issue, according to the report, is that producing coal is more job-intensive than producing natural gas or solar and wind power – it takes fewer workers to keep solar farms up and running.
“Natural gas, solar and wind are all less job-intensive for ongoing operations,” Philip Jordan, a vice president at BW Research Partnership, which analyzes worker data for the Department of Energy. It takes five times as many coal mining and power plant workers to generate a megawatt hour of electricity as wind farms, according to Jordan’s group.
Coal plants require people and expensive machines to crush, sort into piles, prepare coal to be pulverized into a mist, and eventually shoveled into boilers. The ash residue resulting from the burning must then be collected and disposed of, all of which requires intensive labor.
Natural gas, on the other hand, is delivered directly to power plants via pipeline. It combusts completely and therefore doesn’t need people to handle the waste. Wind and solar farms operate under similar conditions.
They don’t require fuel to make power, so they only need a handful of workers toggling switches and pressing buttons. The farms also have fewer moving parts, and in some instances, use magnetic motors instead of gears. The rapid automation reduces the need for maintenance.
The downward pressure on the coal industry comes after energy regulators rejected a DOE Chief Rick Perry’s plan to effectively subsidize coal and nuclear power plans facing closure.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) unanimously nixed the moribund plan, which would have compensated power plants that keep 90 days-worth of fuel onsite, mostly nuclear and coal plants.
Perry’s plan was not the only policy move designed to help an industry that at one time was a powerhouse for employment. There’s also a national push to keep nuclear plants, and some coal plants, open in the face of strict regulations and increased competition from natural gas.
New York and Illinois, for instance, put policies in place to subsidize nuclear power. Connecticut also instated a policy designed to insulate its sole nuclear plant from competition from natural gas.
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