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As Coal Jobs Decline, Solar Sector Shines

May 6, 2017
Originally published on May 6, 2017 9:39 am

Craig Williams is still mining coal despite tough times for the business. "We're one of the last industries around and hope to keep it that way," he says in a breakroom at Consol Energy's Harvey mine, south of Pittsburgh.

The father of two — speaking in his dusty work jacket and a hard hat with headlamp — says coal is the best way he's able to support his family. He declines to give his salary, but nationally, coal miners average about $80,000 a year.

"If you had to take another job, in this area especially," Williams says, "you're going to take anywhere from a 50 to 70 percent pay cut to what the next best thing is that's out there."

That's a reality more miners face, as coal jobs have shrunk by 40 percent since 2011. What is growing is the number of jobs in renewables. Solar power accounts for just under 1.5 percent of electricity in the U.S., and yet, according to the Department of Energy, there are more than twice as many jobs in solar as in coal.

It's tempting to ask: Can't laid-off miners just switch to solar?

"Well, certainly it's a possibility, but there are a couple major challenges," says Rob Godby, an energy economist at the University of Wyoming. One of those is simple: location.

"When you are thinking about coal mining in Appalachia," he says, "often times there are generations of families in those regions, and it's just very difficult to pick up and move."

The other big hurdle is pay. If coal miners average about $35 an hour, for renewables it's more like $20 or $25.

"That doesn't mean you couldn't raise a family on that," Godby says. "But you're a lot closer to the average income in a lot of states in the solar industry than you are in mining industries."

Believing in the mission of solar

On a rooftop at a community center near Pittsburgh, Brian Krenzelak and six other workers in neon green T-shirts bolt down solar panels. Krenzelak was a roofer before joining this company, Energy Independent Solutions, 7 1/2 years ago. In addition to installation, he also helps train workers.

Krenzelak says he believes in the mission of solar, and it's a good living. His wife also works, and the couple have three kids, one in college, with another about to enter.

"I do well with this company — very well. It covers what we need to cover," Krenzelak says. "I'm not becoming a millionaire overnight, but steadily have been building the nest egg, for sure."

Energy experts say solar's surge is being helped by incentives that are scheduled to run out in a few years, and they don't know how long the boom will last. Still, economist Godby says solar is here to stay, "and it will be hard to automate the construction jobs and many other tasks involved in solar power provision."

For now, Krenzelak's company is so busy it's looking to roughly double its workforce of 22.

"We had to slow the salesmen down at a certain point," says Krenzelak, so the installers could catch up. He says it feels good to be in an industry with a future.

Reid Frazier is a reporter for The Allegheny Front, a public radio program based in Pittsburgh that covers the environment. You can follow him @reidfrazier.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

More secret money is finding its way into politics, this time at the state level. Perhaps even B.J. Leiderman, who writes our theme music, has made a contribution. Nonprofit groups have popped up around the country affiliated with the campaigns of several governors. The groups can take unlimited amounts of money and don't have to disclose their contributions either. Then, those groups promote the governor's agenda. St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum reports on how the strategy plays out in Missouri.

JASON ROSENBAUM, BYLINE: As Republican Eric Greitens criss-crossed the state in his bid to become Missouri's governor, he emphasized how proud he was that the state's voters could see every single donation coming into his campaign treasury. In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio last year, Greitens even accused his Republican opponents of using shadowy groups to attack him and others.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ERIC GREITENS: We've already seen other candidates set up the secretive super PACs, where they don't take any responsibility for what they're funding.

ROSENBAUM: But despite his outrage at the time, Greitens now benefits from the kind of big money secretive groups that he criticized. Earlier this year, members of Greitens campaign staff started a group called A New Missouri that's known as a 501(c)4 social welfare group. It can spend money on political activities like ads but doesn't have to disclose its donors. The group backs Greitens' agenda in the legislature.

Governors in Illinois, Arizona and Georgia also have similar groups. And New York City's mayor had one until criticism forced it to shut down. Most states don't require these politically active nonprofits to reveal much about what they're doing. When asked about the group last month, Greitens was unapologetic.

GREITENS: The organization that you're referring to is one that I have no day-to-day responsibilities with. It's an organization that's separate from the governor's office. It does represent the interests of thousands of people around the state of Missouri who care about seeing our priorities get passed.

ROSENBAUM: A New Missouri does more than produce glossy ads that boost Greitens' agenda. The group recently started running web ads attacking a member of his own party, state senator Rob Schaaf. Schaaf is sponsoring a bill that would require politically active nonprofits like A New Missouri to reveal its donors. The group's ads gave out Schaaf's personal cellphone number and told people to call him.

ROB SCHAAF: I could care less. I don't care even at all. Governor, print my cell phone number on every newspaper in the country. I don't care.

ROSENBAUM: Schaaf believes Greitens should disavow the group.

SCHAAF: It's critical that he do this. If he doesn't do this, they're just going to eventually label him as just another corrupt politician.

ROSENBAUM: Schaaf's proposal to require more disclosure from political nonprofits is opposed by most of his fellow Republicans. Gregg Keller worked for one of Greitens' GOP opponents last year and runs a similar nonprofit group called the Missouri Century Foundation. He says political donors should be able to contribute anonymously.

GREGG KELLER: And they deserve to do so without being bullied by outside individuals and organizations as is happening more and more particularly on the left these days.

ROSENBAUM: Schaaf's bill is likely to fail in the Missouri General Assembly which is dominated by Republicans. The state recently adopted contribution limits for political candidates. One effect of that new law may be spurring more politically active nonprofits, says Democratic fundraiser Angela Bingaman.

ANGELA BINGAMAN: It has definitely become more of a conversation with candidates and groups about how to import more money into the political process now that we have limitations on what we can and cannot do.

ROSENBAUM: So expect to see state-level candidates from both parties taking advantage of money from secret donors. For NPR News, I'm Jason Rosenbaum in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.