WATCH | This former coal miner is looking for job security and has found a ray of hope in solar energy
Solar energy still provides just about 1.3 percent of America’s electricity, but according to the nonprofit Solar Foundation, it is now responsible for more than twice as many jobs as coal, gas and oil power combined.
And this labor boon is now a ray of hope for laid-off coal miners in the Pittsburgh area.
Wylie Koontz, a laid-off coal miner, said it was one of the industries hiring.
That's because solar is a pretty labor-intensive process. The jobs come from designing and manufacturing the panels, marketing them and installing them.
A college dropout, Koontz found out first hand how unstable 21st-century coal mining jobs can be.
“I went to college because I had a baseball scholarship so I thought I’d give college a try,” Koontz said. “It just wasn’t for me so then I got a job at the coal mine and got laid off in July of 2016.”
After getting laid off, 23-year-old Koontz spent two months getting unemployment benefits before finding another job in the energy sector.
“Before I got the job I didn’t know anything about solar.”
Skills in the mine work for the solar industry. “They’re usually fairly agile working from the mines,” sayid Marty Bovee of Energy Independent Solutions (EIS) Solar. “They’re either working in cramped spaces, high spaces, up, down.”
Coal still produces one-third of all of the energy consumed in the U.S. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 250,000 people working in the coal industry in the early 1980s. As of October of 2016, that number dropped to 50,000.
Trump has pledged to save the struggling industry with things such as cutting environmental regulations.
According to the 2017 U.S Energy and Employment Report, the solar industry has seen a 5,000 percent growth in net energy generation over the last decade and is now responsible for more than twice as many jobs as coal, gas and oil power combined.
Solar power companies searching for employees look to energy competitors for help.
But like many former manufacturing hubs that line the Rust Belt, Pittsburgh has gone through an economic upheaval in the last half century that has left generations of blue collar workers searching for work.
“Everybody’s pretty much just worried about getting laid off,” Koontz said. “Like 10 years ago they probably didn’t, but they do now.”
“We’ve gotten lots of applicants through either laid off miners or laid off steel workers,” Bovee said.
There were 3,061 people employed in the solar industry in Pennsylvania in 2016, up 23 percent from a year ago. The emergence of solar may be a ray of hope for aworkers whose skills may be out of date. However, coal miners who saw their once healthy industry fall apart remain guarded about the future.
“For now, it’s working,” Koontz said. “In the future will it? Maybe, maybe not.”