Today, just about everything has been politicized and people line up to take sides. Renewable energy is no exception. Few will be surprised to learn that the areas of the country that still champion fossil fuels are the areas where fossil fuels play a major role in the economy. As a result, the switch to renewable energy to save the planet is not a slam dunk in public opinion. If your livelihood depends on fossil fuels, why would you champion wind turbines?
It would be irresponsible for the United States to attempt to move forward with renewable energy without addressing the economic impact this will have on the 1.7 million workers in the fossil fuel industry and their communities. A majority of these jobs pay better than the national average, don’t require education over the high school level, and spur the economy of the general community by generating a tax base.
But there are options to make the transition a just one. Colorado has created a Just Transition Office to help displaced coal workers and communities continue to thrive by transitioning to new jobs and attracting new businesses. New Mexico has a similar initiative that promises to provide workforce training and transition assistance to communities affected by the transition from coal to renewable energy.
The Brookings Institution has published a report that offers insight into what a just transition might look like. They have found that in about 25% of the counties in the US where the economy is heavily dependent on fossil fuel activities, the same counties also have the prerequisite environment for either solar power, wind power, or both. That overlap opens the door to a just transition that could benefit the workers by retraining them for good jobs in the renewable sector and continue to support the community through the energy transition and beyond.
With the costs of renewable energy heading lower than the costs to continue using fossil fuels, both economically and environmentally, many communities could reap the benefits of good jobs in a stable industry. But we will need to move the needle on public opinion in places where fossil fuels are currently the economic underpinnings of a good life. We will need those communities to elect legislators that support a just transition sooner rather than later.
The recent blackouts in Texas have pointed to the need for a more distributed energy grid comprised of a variety of energy generation sources as well as to the politicization of renewables. Frozen wind turbines are being blamed by some for the outages when every type of energy was proportionately affected by the unusually frigid temperatures. Rather than fixing blame, we need to fix the problems with the energy grid. It’s not a zero-sum game. We can support workers and communities, and transition to cleaner energy if we have the will to proceed.