Tiffany Berger spent more than a decade working at a coal-fired power plant in Coshocton County, Ohio, eventually becoming a unit operator earning about $100,000 annually.
But in 2020, American Electric Power closed the plant, and Ms. Berger struggled to find work nearby that offered comparable pay. She sold her house, moved in with her parents and decided to help run their farm in Newcomerstown, Ohio, about 30 minutes away.
They sell some of the corn, beans and beef they harvest, but just enough to keep the farm running. Ms Berger, 39, started working part-time at a local fertilizer and seed company last year, earning just a third of what she used to earn. She said she “never dreamed” the plant would close.
“I thought I was ready to retire from there,” Ms. Berger said. “It’s a power plant. I mean, everybody needs power.”
The US is experiencing a rapid shift away from fossil fuels such as new battery plants, wind and solar projects, and other clean energy investments is popping up all over the country. A sweeping climate law that Democrats passed last year could be even more effective than Biden administration officials estimated at reducing fossil fuel emissions.
During the transition it is projected to create hundreds of thousands of clean energy jobsit could be devastating for many workers and counties that depended on coal, oil and gas for their economic stability.
Estimates of the possible job losses in the coming years will vary, but approximately 900,000 workers were directly employed by fossil fuel industries in 2022, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Biden administration is trying to soften the impact, mostly by providing additional tax benefits for renewable energy projects that are built in areas vulnerable to the energy transition.
But some economists, climate researchers and union leaders said they were skeptical the initiatives would be enough. Beyond construction, wind and solar farms typically require few workers to operate, and new clean energy jobs may not necessarily be on offer. comparable salaries or line up with the skills of laid-off workers.
Coal plants have been closing for years, and the nation’s coal production fell from its peak in the late 2000s. US coal generation capacity is projected to decline dramatically to about 50 percent from current levels to 2030, according to the Energy Information Administration. About 41,000 workers remain in the coal mining industry, down from about 177,000 in the mid-1980s.
The demise of the industry is a problem not only for its workers but also for the communities that have long depended on coal to power theirs taxable income. The loss of income from mines, plants and workers can mean less money for schools, roads and law enforcement. A recent paper from the Aspen Institute found that from 1980 to 2019, regions exposed to the decline of coal saw long-term reductions in income and employment rates, greater use of Medicare and Medicaid benefits and large declines in population, especially among younger workers. That “leaves behind a population that is disproportionately old, sick and poor,” according to the paper.
The Biden administration has pledged to help those communities weather the impact, for economic and political reasons. Failure to adequately help displaced workers could translate into the kind of populist backlash that hurt Democrats after globalization as companies moved factories to China. Promises to restore coal jobs also helped Donald J. Trump clinch the 2016 electionsecuring him decisive votes in states like Pennsylvania.
Federal officials promised create jobs in hard-hit communities and ensure displaced workers “benefit from the new clean energy economy” by offering developers billions in bonus tax credits to put renewable energy projects in fossil fuel-dependent regions.
If new investments such as solar farms or battery storage facilities are built in those regions, called “energetic communities,” developers could get as much as 40 percent of the cost of a project covered. Businesses receiving credits for producing electricity from renewable sources could earn a 10 percent boost.
The Inflation Reduction Act also set aside at least $4 billion in tax credits that could be used to build clean energy production facilities, among other projects, in regions with closed coal mines or plants, and it created program that could guarantee up to $250 billion in loans to repurpose facilities like a closed power plant for clean energy uses.
Brian Anderson, the executive director of the Biden administration interagency working group on energy communities, pointed to other federal initiatives, including increased funding for projects to pick up left mining lands and relief funds to revitalize coal communities.
However, he said the efforts would not be enough, and that officials have limited funding to directly help more communities.
“We’re standing right on the cusp of possibly still leaving them behind,” Mr Anderson said.
Phil Smith, the chief of staff at the United Mine Workers of America, said the tax credits for producers could help create more jobs but that $4 billion probably wouldn’t be enough to attract facilities to every region. He said he also hoped for more direct relief for laid-off workers, but Congress has not funded those initiatives.
“We think that’s still something to do,” Mr Smith said.
Gordon Hanson, the author of the Aspen Institute paper and a professor of urban policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, said he worries that the federal government is relying too heavily on the tax credits, in part because companies would likely be more inclined to invest in growth. areas He urged federal officials to increase unemployment benefits to distressed regions and funding for workforce development programs.
Even with the bonus credit, clean energy investments may not reach the most affected areas because a wide range of regions meets the federal definition of an energy community, said Daniel Raimi, fellow at Resources for the Future.
“If the intent of that provision was specifically to provide a benefit to the most affected fossil fuel communities, I don’t think it’s done that,” Mr. Raimi said.
Local officials had mixed reactions to the federal efforts. Steve Henry, the judge-executive of Webster County, Ky., said he believes they can bring renewable energy investments and help attract other industries to the region. The county experienced a significant drop in tax revenue after its last mine closed in 2019, and it is now hiring fewer 911 dispatchers and deputy sheriffs because officials cannot offer more competitive salaries.
“I think we can recover,” he said. “But it’s going to be a long recovery.”
Adam O’Nan, the judge-executive of Union County, Ky., which has one coal mine abandoned, said he thought renewable energy would bring few jobs to the area, and he doubted a factory would be built because of the county’s district. inadequate infrastructure.
“It’s kind of hard to see how it gets down in Union County at this point,” Mr. O’Nan said. “We are best suited for coal at the moment.”
Federal and state efforts So far, little has been done to help workers like James Ault, 42, who was employed at an oil refinery in Contra Costa County, Calif.for 14 years before he was laid off in 2020. To keep his family afloat, he depleted his pension and withdrew most of the money from his 401(k) early.
In early 2022, he moved to Roseville, California, to work at a power plant, but he was fired again after four months. He worked briefly as a food delivery boy before landing a job in February at a nearby chemical manufacturer.
He now makes $17 an hour less than he did at the refinery and is barely able to cover his mortgage. However, he said he would not return to the oil industry.
“With our push away from gasoline, I feel like I’d be entering an industry that’s kind of dying,” Mr. Ault said.