With the shift to cleaner power sources displacing workers in coal-reliant communities, one of the largest US trade unions for the utility sector hopes that President-elect Joe Biden will expand an Obama administration program to ease the economic effects of the energy transition.
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Biden has set a goal to have the US power sector achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2035. Working toward that target could create a surge in renewable energy jobs but extend the years-long decline in employment for the coal mining and coal-fired power plant industries.
"I think that both the up- and downside is all going to happen at the same time," Lee Anderson, government affairs director for the Utility Workers Union of America said in a recent interview. "Yes, wind jobs are created in manufacturing and construction ... at the same time as over here, coal plants are closing and jobs are going away."
The UWUA, which represents over 50,000 workers across the power, water and gas sectors, has members that build or are learning to construct utility-scale renewable and battery storage systems. But "on the operations and maintenance side, just in broad terms, [those jobs] are not as labor-intensive as [traditional] power plants," Anderson said.
To deal with that trend, the UWUA has been talking with Biden's transition team on how to ensure a just transition for fossil fuel workers.
"What we've recommended to them is that they stand up a more robust set of transition policies ... as compared to what they attempted under the Obama administration," Anderson said.
Former President Barack Obama, for whom Biden served as vice president, launched a multi-agency effort in 2015 to ease the economic impacts of the country's shift away from coal-based power. The Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization Plus initiative, known as POWER Plus, focused on grant programs to aid with economic diversification and adjustment for affected coal communities, social welfare for miners and their families, and tax incentives to support carbon capture technologies.
Although the UWUA supported the program, "it was not nearly at the scale necessary and didn't have the requisite governance structures," Anderson said.
The union hopes that Biden will "stand up something that's more formalized, has a stronger governance structure across the administration, and is more directly tied to the communities out the in the world and the workforces that are being affected," Anderson said. "Just the notion of having the White House and the president talking about that sort of a policy out loud would be sea change compared to where we've been the last four years."
The UWUA has evaluated long-term federal policies in countries such as Canada and Germany for addressing displaced energy workers. Anderson said the two countries' programs, stacked on top of existing social structures there, were "quite robust" and could serve as a guide for what the new administration could do.
"You have to make sure people have access to healthcare, that they're not losing out on pension benefits, that there's some kind of wage replacement," Anderson said. Policies are also needed to support the education of former fossil fuel workers and attract other industries to areas formerly dependent on coal mining and power jobs, he added.
Anderson said some of those programs could be set up right away using existing programs across federal agencies.
In terms of costs for a just transition, Anderson said he was "fond of" the proposal put forward by Biden's competitor in the Democratic presidential primaries, Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent-Vermont. As part of his campaign, Sanders said he would spend $1.3 trillion to "ensure that workers in the fossil fuel and other carbon-intensive industries receive strong benefits, a living wage, training, and job placement."
For his part, Biden vowed to make an "unprecedented investment" to build upon the POWER Plus program and secure the benefits that coal workers and their families have earned. Although such pledges may come with a high price tag, Anderson stressed that big investments are necessary.
"The issue is about way more than just these individual people and these workforces," Anderson said. "You can look at across the industrial Midwest or Appalachia or beyond and you see whole landscapes that are just emptied out and they're just economically devastated. That's not something you bring back with 10 million bucks."