Fact Check: Missoulian – “New solar jobs far outpace coal”
A March 28, 2016 Missoulian article titled, “GEORGE OCHENSKI: New solar jobs far outpace coal” recently caught my attention as the author goes to great lengths to disparage coal-fueled electricity and to compare the relative competitive capabilities of coal vs. solar, the construction of new solar generation capacity, and the job-producing abilities of the coal and solar industries.
Since the author opened up the door on comparing the two industries, it is worthwhile to walk through that door and comment on a few of his claims in the article.
- First, Mr. Ochenski cites a Solar Foundation “jobs census” that claims the solar industry now employs “a total of an estimated 208,859 jobs … surpassing those employed in the coal industry.” What he (and other solar boosters) don’t tend to tell you is that they will count every possible job linked with the industry in any conceivable way; installation, sales, distribution, manufacturing, utility-scale, and residential, etc. Anyone they can possibly tie to the industry is included. They do not, however, offer the same generous accounting to coal. Typically only those who are directly employed in mining are included. A more realistic, but still extremely rough, back of the napkin-type, estimate might include,
- 75,000 directly employed in the coal mining industry
- 71,780 – 38.8% of the nation’s 185,000 rail workers in the US – coal made up 38.8% of rail tonnage shipped in 2014
- 48,150 – half of the 96,300 people employed in the fossil fuel electric power generation sector. Natural gas and coal produced roughly similar amounts of electricity in 2015.
Just these three sectors give a quick estimate of 194,930, almost equivalent to the numbers claimed by the solar jobs census. Adding the numbers from other coal industry sectors – barging / shipping, ports and terminals, trucking, technical and economic consultants, support services, equipment suppliers, materials suppliers, energy traders and the financial and capital sectors, marketing, construction, analytical services, environmental services, legal services, ash handling, bulk materials handling, etc. etc. etc.– would easily add well over the remaining 14,000 jobs.
- Mr. Ochenski also appears to omit the reasons for recent job losses in the coal industry, which has been on the receiving end of a multi–billion dollar regulatory assault by the federal government and extreme environmental special interests. Those attacks have drastically increased costs and forced the industry to shed (literally) tens of thousands of jobs over the past few years.
- Mr. Ochenski also skips over the fact that, while the coal industry has been saddled with billions in additional regulatory costs, the solar industry has been lavished with an unending stream of profoundly generous handouts and subsidies. In fact, solar energy received $5.3 billion in direct federal subsidies in 2013, and handouts to renewable energy have only grown more opulent since then. One example of the overly generous nature of this federal support is that while an existing coal-fueled power plant can generate electricity for approximately $30 – $38/MWh. Solar generators receive over $230/MWh in direct federal support. One can reasonably ask how difficult it is to “compete” when a protective and paternalistic government gives your industry more than six times what it costs for your competitors to produce and sell their products. Furthermore, even after receiving those subsidies, solar producers can still sell the energy they produce into the market, and can do so at the same rates as other producers, allowing them even more profit.
- Mr. Ochenski does not discuss another means by which solar producers are able to grow their market share; protective state regulations and mandates that force their energy to the front of the generation line. In many states there are “shall take” mandates, feed-in tariffs, carve-outs, and set asides that require electric utilities to use renewable energy first, thereby leaving other energy resources out of the energy mix. Again, renewable advocates like Mr. Ochenski claim they are “competing” in energy markets. However, “competition,” in this case, is like running a 100-yard dash where your opponent is given a 10 second head start and you are tied down at the starting line.
- Mr. Ochenski also conveniently omits the fact that despite multiple billions in subsidies, protective regulations/mandates, and despite the much vaunted rapid recent growth rate of his chosen industry, solar still only generated just over one half of 1% (0.6%) of U.S. electricity in 2015. In comparison, the U.S. coal industry, despite intense market and regulatory pressures, generated 33% of U.S. electricity in 2015.
- On a similar note, Mr. Ochenski brags convincingly about the solar industry adding “two gigawatts (GW) of energy to the grid.” He condescendingly describes how two Colstrip coal-fueled boilers produce “barely a third of solar industry’s (recently increased) output.” However, he does not explain that his impressive two GW solar statistic is a measure for the entire solar industry, while the Colstrip plants are two low-average size coal boilers at a single plant. Ochenski doesn’t bother to put his statistic into context by letting his readers know that a single coal generation plant can generate more than all of the American solar industry’s two new gigawatts. He also misses explaining how that single coal plant can run as baseload capacity – meaning it can run almost all the time, providing electricity whenever Americans need it. In contrast, the solar cells that Mr. Ochensk struggles so mightily to defend are limited to producing electricity during clear days. If the sun isn’t shining, or there are clouds in the sky, no energy is going to the grid. So, when you dig a little, you see that solar isn’t quite as reliable an energy source as coal.
- Ochenski is also ‘mum’ on the reality that, due to the ephemeral and unreliable nature of solar generation, for every 1 MW of solar that is produced, utilities need to firm, or back up, that 1 MW with as much as 0.9 MW of another reliable energy source like fossil fuels or nuclear. So the costs to produce reliable energy go way up as you need to build almost double the infrastructure when you choose to rely on solar energy.
- There are several more potential criticisms that could be made, but in the interests of time, I’ll wrap up by noting that Mr. Ochenski’s assertion that solar “may eventually produce a whopping 38 percent of the nation’s electrical energy supply” is nothing more than wishful thinking. One could just as easily and almost as accurately opine that some day we may be able to capture the positive energy from happy thoughts to “eventually produce a whopping x% of the nation’s energy supply.” Relying on solar energy for the lion’s share of our energy may be a nice goal, but it is currently the stuff of science fiction. It won’t possibly materialize for many decades (at best) and it will certainly never happen if the generosity of the American taxpayer falters in any way.