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Clean energy worker
Report

How renewable energy jobs can uplift fossil fuel communities and remake climate politics

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Contents


Introduction

The future of the American economy and our collective well-being require a comprehensive response to the climate crisis, including a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. It will be impossible to mitigate climate change—and hit our greenhouse gas reduction targets by 2030, or even 2050—without quickly transitioning to solar, wind, and other renewable sources of electricity. Yet this transition cannot move at the speed the country needs if elected officials don’t address the politics around renewable energy’s geographic impact, particularly the threat of losing fossil-fuel-related jobs in specific places.

Fossil fuels create a sizable economic footprint in the communities where resource extraction, refining, and electricity generation occur. Despite ongoing employment declines in some regions, these and other traditional energy industries still provide many workers with specialized experience, foster careers in the skilled trades, and can offer higher pay with lower formal educational requirements—similar to many other infrastructure-related jobs. And since fossil fuel industries produce and distribute energy goods nationally and globally, they bring income and tax revenues into the community and create downstream jobs, from parts suppliers to teachers and doctors.

Thus, the clean economy transition isn’t as simple as doing what’s right for the planet. Residents and businesses in fossil fuel employment hubs often view this transition with skepticism or fear, leading them to turn to politics as the most direct path to protect their economic fortunes despite the environmental harms. The February blackouts in Texas have further perpetuated concerns over renewable energy, despite ongoing extreme weather challenges for all types of energy infrastructure. To break this political blockade, then, federal and state leaders need to convince these communities that the clean economy doesn’t threaten their future—and that a “just transition” will deliver sustainable jobs.

Fortunately, a potential political solution is hiding in plain sight. Our analysis of a geographic database of renewable energy generation potential finds that many current fossil fuel hubs are ideal sites for renewable energy production. In total, a quarter of the counties in the U.S. with the greatest potential for both wind and solar electricity generation are also fossil fuel hubs.

The political implications are timely and significant. If federal and state leaders can focus workforce development efforts and renewable energy investments in specific areas of need, it can reduce climate obstructionism in many of the communities that question the transition to renewables. Since even small numbers of votes could decide whether transformative climate legislation passes from Washington, D.C. to state capitals, these programs could be the difference between environmental ruin or a cleaner and more inclusive future.

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Where are fossil fuel jobs concentrated?

Fossil fuel use is ubiquitous in our modern economy. Because of the high quantities of energy stored within them, fossil fuels power our businesses, homes, and the infrastructure networks that connect them. But while fossil fuels are used everywhere, the locations of extraction, refinement, and generation are highly concentrated.

In 2019, nearly 1.7 million people worked in fossil fuel industries, which include extraction activities such as mining, electricity generation, utility construction, pipelines, and other related manufacturing. (See the downloadable appendix for more information on our fossil fuel employment definition.) While the number may seem relatively small, it’s about as many workers as in clothing stores or nursing care facilities. And because fossil fuel jobs are geographically concentrated, they create an outsized influence on their local economies and public opinion around climate issues.

Figures 1A and 1B map fossil fuel employment both as the total number of jobs and as a share of total employment. Fossil fuel jobs tend to cluster in a wide range of counties, from metropolitan Los Angeles and Houston to mountainous counties in Wyoming and Pennsylvania.

For a smaller set of counties, fossil fuel jobs represent an outsized share of the labor force. In certain counties in West Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, North Dakota, and West Virginia, 30% to 50% of all workers are employed in these industries. Many of these counties also tend to vote Republican in state and federal elections.

Figure 1A

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Figure 1B

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For residents of counties rich with fossil fuels, energy jobs deliver clear economic impact. Fossil fuel industries can offer wages above the national median, may not require much formal education beyond high school, and can provide on-the-job training and promote technical skills related to energy. Workers employed in utilities are often unionized as well. Even as many fossil fuel industries have shed jobs over the last few years—including through the continued phase out of coal—no community rich in fossil fuel jobs would willingly want to give up even more without a clear alternative.

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Many fossil fuel hubs could be wind and solar hubs

Renewable energy sources offer a pathway to a cleaner economy, but they share a key similarity with fossil fuels: Some regions have greater resource potential than others. The enormous innovation potential and cost competitiveness of renewable technologies also hold economic promise for many rural regions. However, the transition to solar and wind power isn’t as simple as installing some solar cells or raising a wind turbine. The natural environment needs to provide the kind of high-intensity solar rays and steady, high-velocity winds that can maximize power generation. National public and private leaders—including utilities, technology companies, and educational institutions—also need to train the skilled labor and deploy the price-competitive equipment in those same places to capture all that potential kinetic energy.

Fortunately, there is an impressive overlap between where fossil fuel jobs are now and where renewable energy generation could be.

Joshua Rhodes, Carey King, and their colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin translated their research into an interactive tool that can help the public understand the varying costs of electricity-generation technologies in U.S. counties and congressional districts. Their Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) project calculates the per-megawatt-hour cost of building and operating an electricity-generating plant for a variety of production technologies across the continental United States. The underlying calculations take many factors into consideration, including plant lifetimes, upfront and operational costs, and geographic factors such as resource availability. The resulting database allows direct cost comparison across 12 electricity-production technologies. For the purposes of this research, we focused on the levelized cost of utility-scale solar photovoltaic and wind.

Figures 2A and 2B map where both wind and solar are estimated to be most cost competitive and have the most potential. Competitive counties are defined as the 20% of counties with the cheapest LCOE for a given technology.

The most competitive counties in wind are concentrated in the Plains states and Intermountain West, running from West Texas to the Canadian border. There are also bright pockets of wind opportunity through the Appalachian Mountains; in Watauga County, N.C., for example, wind electricity production costs only $54 megawatts per hour.

Figure 2A

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Figure 2B

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Solar competitiveness is primarily concentrated in the deep Southeast, Southwest, and Mountain West, particularly parts of Wyoming, Texas, and California. New Mexico is home to five of the 10 cheapest counties for solar electricity generation. Many counties, especially in West Texas and the Great Plains, have clear opportunities in both wind and solar. For example, all but one of Wyoming’s 23 counties are competitive in either wind or solar, and seven are competitive in both.

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Collectively, a quarter of the counties in the U.S. with greater potential for both wind and solar are also fossil fuel hubs. Figures 3A and 3B map the wind and solar costs only in fossil fuel employment hubs, or those counties with at least 486 fossil fuel jobs (the top 20% of all counties by job count). Wind potential could benefit fossil fuel employment hubs in Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, North Dakota, New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Meanwhile, solar power will work best in fossil fuel hubs in California, Texas, and Wyoming.

Figure 3A

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Figure 3B

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Republican-leaning states and counties could benefit most in the transition from fossil fuel to renewables jobs

While the national Republican Party has not generally been proactive in addressing the climate crisis, many Republican-leaning states and counties stand to benefit the most from our transition to a cleaner energy future. For Republicans representing counties and states that have cost competitive renewable-generation potential, a clean energy economy could make their district more economically competitive and help its existing and prospective workers.

Figure 4 maps the 117th U.S. House of Representatives through the lens of renewable energy potential. The brightest colors run through the middle of the country and reflect where wind and solar potential tend to overlap. Of the 155 districts with greater potential in at least one renewable technology, 91 are represented by Republican Party members. And while not mapped here, many of the states with greater renewable energy potential are also represented by Republican senators, with both Senate seats filled by Republicans in Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming.

Figure 4

political map

Many of the same Republican legislators who represent fossil fuel job hubs with renewable energy potential also hold committee and conference leadership positions. Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) is the ranking member on the House’s Environment and Climate Change subcommittee. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) is the whip for the House Republican Conference. And Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) is the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

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Policies to retrain fossil fuel workers could break our climate stalemate

Like any place, fossil-fuel-dependent communities want to feel confident in their future. But the push to transition to a clean economy and away from fossil fuels has raised fears from many workers, businesses, and policymakers. Concerns have also escalated following Texas’ February blackouts, when some lawmakers and pundits falsely blamed wind energy for the power failures.

The data in this brief, however, demonstrates that the clean energy transition offers a grand opportunity to retrain local workers and repurpose the industrial infrastructure in these communities. If the country needs to make targeted, big bets on renewable energy investments, why not prioritize the communities that already have workers with complementary skills and experience in the traditional energy industry?

We recommend policymakers focus on a three-part plan to benefit fossil-fuel-dependent communities. While we recognize the complexity of this challenge—from the varying scale and impact of new technologies to the different types of industries and workers impacted—we also know that the clean economy transition is already happening, displacing many workers and demanding more intentional economic development policies. A similar long-term lesson of 1990s free trade agreements was that profound shifts in industrial competitiveness can leave some places permanently behind. The federal government—in coordination with many state, local, and private leaders—must respect this finding and act with purpose when it comes to communities increasingly exposed to the clean energy shift.

  • First, the federal government needs to establish clear goals, metrics, and standards to assist workers in economically at-risk communities. Like President Joe Biden’s January executive order on climate accounting, the federal government needs to understand how much each American community stands to gain or lose within the clean energy transition. Not all renewable energy jobs offer higher pay or are more unionized than fossil fuel jobs, and some of these workers may not be able to easily translate their skills or experience. Quantitative and qualitative information will help design any well-coordinated set of federal policies and ensure limited federal dollars flow to communities of greatest need. Similar national plans geared toward a “just transition” have emerged in Europe and Canada—as have planning efforts in states such as Colorado—but a coordinated federal strategy can ideally build greater scale and consistency around measurement, prioritization, and investment.
  • Second, the federal government should incentivize targeted training efforts in the “Goldilocks” communities: those that are currently reliant on fossil fuel industries and have strong potential to generate energy from renewables. Building on the growing evidence of which workforce development efforts are most effective in the energy sector, the federal government should support partnerships among educational institutions, labor, and other community organizations in those regions. Where possible, the federal government should tap the transferable technical skills among current fossil fuel workers; however, it should also acknowledge that the current labor demand for fast-growing renewable energy jobs may still lag behind fossil fuel industries in the next few years and may not supplant all existing jobs. As in any labor market transition, there will be an ebb and flow in hiring needs and training demands.

Still, taking action now matters, and educational institutions should also receive additional funding and technical resources to quickly prepare the next wave of energy workers and develop a talent pipeline to keep these regions competitive in the future. These efforts should include expanded funding for mine-reclamation projects and other worker assistance programs—including the POWER Initiative and the ACC program—but also look to connect workers to longer-term career pathways through more apprenticeships and earn-and-learn models.

  • Third, the federal government and its state partners should work directly with local and national companies to ensure investments take place in the “Goldilocks” communities when possible. For example, the federal government could target subsidized loans in these regions to incentivize private investment. Public programs to modernize transmission networks or experiment with large-scale battery storage could start with these locations. Finally, the federal government could increase investment in local research institutions to steer innovation activities to these places. Public research institutions such as the National Energy Technology Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory provide models for this kind of economic impact. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, located in Jefferson County, Colo., partners closely with local educational institutions, ranks among the county’s top five employers, and has acted as an economic stabilizer for the local community.

Of course, not every fossil-fuel-dependent community is well situated within the clean economy. And not all workers susceptible to job displacement will instantly find new careers or easily transfer their skills and experience. Energy workers in certain Kentucky, Minnesota, and West Virginia counties, for example, may need different kinds of community assistance programs because renewables may not be competitive in those locations. As the federal government explores a range of place-based and “just transition” policies, these communities merit additional attention. Federal policymakers could learn from efforts in Colorado, New Mexico, and within the federal Appalachian Regional Commission to design green-focused transition programs. Resources for the Future and the Environmental Defense Fund produced a clear set of ideas on how to remake federal economic development policies for fossil-fuel-rich communities.

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Next steps in the renewable energy job transition

The U.S. transition to a low-carbon economy is already underway, and some of the most striking progress is within the energy-generation sector. As the cost of solar, wind, and other renewable sources continues to fall, market forces will continue to encourage renewable energy generation and lead to the closure of fossil fuel extraction and generation activities. And while not all fossil fuel jobs are going to disappear overnight, events such as the Texas blackouts demonstrate that our energy infrastructure systems depend on a wide range of sources. As the clean energy transition continues, the U.S. cannot afford to leave behind the workers and communities who powered the American economy for over a century.

There is a moral and economic imperative to help those people and places transition to the clean economy. Fortunately, the geography of clean energy nicely aligns with fossil fuel jobs. Federal officials now have a grand opportunity to leverage this geographic good fortune, deploying public policy to help those communities transition to a clean energy future and using those geographic targets to break the stalemate in our climate politics.

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