America’s other coal job, ignored by politicians, is dying fast
A couple of months ago, Donald Trump was cheering a new coal mine in Pennsylvania that will put 70 people to work — good news for a president whose pledge to revive the industry helped get him elected. But a bigger group of coal workers has already suffered sweeping job cuts, and it’s bracing for more.
Coal-fired power plants employ more people than mines, and they’re shutting down all over the country. Cheap natural gas, the rise of renewables backed by tax credits, and subsidies for nuclear energy will likely combine to keep the trend going — and leave more people like Lynnette Faje out of work.
Faje had spent more than a quarter century at an Illinois-based power company that’s owned today by NRG Energy Inc. She had survived two buyouts and had spent her final three years at the company as a laborer on the plant floor after her office position was cut.
She found out her $23.50-an-hour job was being eliminated entirely while taking minutes one day at a local union meeting.
“Pretty much everything I’ve worked for my whole life is pretty much gone,” Faje, 51, said. She voted for Trump and wants to go back to work at a coal plant, but she sees little chance of that happening.
Contractors have been hired to do her old job now and she’s found work on the overnight shift at a candy factory, earning 28 percent less an hour than she did at NRG to watch Baby Ruth bars roll by on the conveyor belt.
Coal-fired plants employed 86,035 people in the U.S. last year. That may not seem like a huge amount in a country of some 150 million workers but it’s 16 percent more than the number employed at mines, according to the U.S. government. It’s also a younger and more diverse workforce, with women making up more than a third of it, and ethnic minorities about a quarter.
The workers haven’t gotten nearly as much attention as the miners — even though their numbers are shrinking fast. And coal comebacks like the one Trump hailed in Pennsylvania won’t help them. Corsa Coal’s venture there is digging up metallurgical coal, which is used in steelmaking and often exported.
Under Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency is making efforts to save some of the coal-plant jobs by scaling back emissions regulations. But most experts expect more plants to shutter as new gas-fired units come online and costs keep plunging for solar and wind power. Some coal plants are being converted to gas, which still involves layoffs because gas generators typically employ about half as many people.
“All the power market people that I know, we all think coal is going to zero,” said Alex Elsik, chief executive officer of Geosol Capital, a Houston-based hedge fund. In the power market that the Chicago plants are part of, the cost of generation with coal is about 50 percent higher than with gas, he said.
Public Service Company of Oklahoma still operates a coal-fired unit at its Oologah power station. Last year it finished an environmental upgrade, which began in 2014 to meet Environmental Protection Agency rules on regional haze.
The environmental controls will allow the unit to operate for another 10 years, when it will be retired.
If there’s a sliver of hope for the industry, it may lie in a burgeoning debate among regulators and grid operators about the need to preserve fuel diversity.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers has been pushing that case in Washington, according to Donnie Colston, director of its utilities department. A much-cited example is the polar vortex that froze the U.S. in early 2014.
Gas prices surged to record highs in New York, and the PJM Interconnection grid — serving a fifth of the country’s population, from the Midwest to the mid-Atlantic — lost 22 percent of its generation assets. Keeping some coal capacity can mitigate such risks.
Coal plants are “life-limited over time, but for the present, coal plants will continue to be needed for reliability and fuel diversity,” David Gaier, a spokesman for NRG, said by email.