OPINIONATED: Where Have Utility Jobs Gone?

27 Feb 2018

by Fereidoon Sioshansi

It is broadly accepted that automation and artificial intelligence (AI) will make many of today’s jobs redundant – think of automated bank machines, driverless cars, cashier-less supermarkets and drones dropping packages at your doorstep. Travel agents and hordes of other professions have been virtually wiped out of market while robots now assist investors pick the best investment opportunities at a fraction of the cost of human brokers – and are available 24/7.

Thus far, however, the impact of these trends has been modest in the power sector except in a few areas such as meter reading – where smart meters are replacing the need for humans. Similarly, record-keeping and billing functions within utilities are shrinking as more are automated and move online.

As it turns out, however, the real threat to utility jobs is likely to come from another source, namely the tectonic shift towards lower carbon energy resources: Natural gas and renewables. Neither needs many workers compared to coal or nuclear plants that they generally replace.

In an Jan. 16, 2018 article in The Wall Street Journal, Russell Gold points out that total direct utility employment in the U.S. has shrunk from 550,000 in 2006 to 505,000 today and falling. The culprit? Plentiful, cheap and relatively clean natural gas and even more plentiful, cheaper and far cleaner solar and wind.

No fuel, no waste, no carbon, and–it turns out–few jobs

Source: Independent, Dec. 27, 2017, from Getty Images

The underlying data provided by the Center for Energy Workforce Development are enough to shock anyone who has not been paying attention to this often-neglected part of the global march towards a low carbon future. Not only is the future of power generation shifting towards low carbon resources – which is good – but thousands of well-paying jobs are likely to be wiped out in the process – which is not necessarily good, especially if those are the jobs that pay the bills for your family.

The WSJ article mentions a Vistra Energy Corp. – previously part of Energy Future Holdings Corp. – recently shutting down an unprofitable coal plant in Texas along with a nearby coal mine feeding the boilers with a 15-mile long conveyor belt. Some 450 people lost their jobs. The company is starting a new solar farm nearby–one of the largest in the U.S.–and it employs “two people – and they might be part time,” according to the article.

Solar power: No fuel, no moving parts, no workers. Global solar capacity, 2006-16 in GW

Source: Renewable Energy Network

As explained in the article, 41 percent of the U.S. electricity is currently generated from natural gas, wind and solar – the figure was 27.7 percent only 5 years ago. By contrast, over the same period, the share of coal and nuclear has dropped from 62 percent to 50 percent today–and continues to fall.

In California, the figure is much higher today and rapidly rising – the state’s remaining nuclear plant is scheduled to be retired in 2025 and the state will essentially get out of coal power imports altogether making California virtually 100 percent dependent on natural gas and renewables.

If you are interested in low carbon emissions, this is as good as it gets. But in terms of well-paying jobs it is not as good a story.

“It generally takes 5 times as many coal mining and power plant workers to generate a MWh of electricity as wind farm operators …”

“Coal takes 50 percent more workers than gas, and twice as many as solar …”

How come, you may ask, as this editor did when first coming across the numbers?

“Coal plants require people and machines to unload the combustible rocks, sort them into piles and prepare them to be pulverized into a fine mist, which is then blown into boilers. Once the coal is burned, the resulting ash needs to be collected and disposed.”
How is this different from a natural gas plant?

“Natural gas is typically delivered straight to power plants by pipeline – no unloading required. It combusts completely, so it doesn’t need workers to procure, deliver or process it.”

“Solar farms also have few moving parts requiring maintenance.”

For their part, nuclear plants may be compact and carbon-free, but they are complex and potentially dangerous. They must be diligently protected and safely operated 24/7 – with zero tolerance for errors. Roughly 9,000 guards are reported to be protecting the 62 nuclear plants in the U.S. alone–and they do not contribute to a single kWh of output. They are there so nobody ever gets close to the facilities.

As U.S. and other countries around the world move away from nuclear and coal to natural gas and renewables, many traditional, well-paying jobs are likely to disappear along with the greenhouse gas emissions.

The good news is that renewables and natural gas plants–as well as rooftop solar panels–will generate many jobs along their value chains. Hopefully, that will be more than the ones they destroy.

Fereidoon Sioshansi can be reached at fpsioshansi@aol.com or visit www.eenergyinformer.com



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