Why coal plant workers aren’t going green

By David Ferris | 06/22/2021 06:10 AM EST

Mike Gaval catches the elevator to the control room inside the Gilberton Power Co.'s coal-fired power plant in Gilberton, Pa. in July 2020. Dane Rhys/REUTERS/Newscom

To secure a future in clean energy, John Lammi had to climb. He stood on the ground inside the hollow steel stalk of a wind turbine. A thin ladder clung to its wall, vanishing to a dot almost 30 stories high.

He had 12 minutes to get to the top. Go.

Until that day in 2019, Lammi, 46, had worked for a decade as a machinist, fixing the equipment that converts burning coal into electricity. But his employer, Consumers Energy in Michigan, is shuttering its coal plants one by one. If Lammi passed the test, he would launch into a new career as a clean energy specialist, one of the first in the country.

The possibility of such a job is life-changing for someone like Lammi, but is still an anomaly.

In the midst of a roiling debate in Washington about whether it’s possible to transition coal workers into clean energy, electric utilities are transitioning almost none of their tens of thousands of coal workers into clean energy jobs.

But they also aren’t laying them off. Instead, most power companies are playing a sort of musical chairs where no one quite loses a chair.

The strategy: When a coal plant closes, offer the machinists and operators the same job at one of the dwindling number of coal plants that are still running. Often it is farther away, giving the worker the unappetizing choice of a longer commute, a relocation or quitting for another line of work.

As the coal industry undergoes a slow collapse, utilities estimate that coal plants and coal workers will retire or give up at roughly the same rates, until a day perhaps in the 2040s or 2050s, when the timeline stops and both cease to exist.

It remains to be seen if such a strategy can work as economics and regulations put greater pressure on coal plants to close, and on earlier timelines.

There is no question the workforce at coal plants is shrinking. Utilities shed almost 7,700 jobs in coal generation in 2019, or 16%, leaving them with just over 38,000 positions, according to the U.S. Energy and Employment Report.

But the shuttering of these coal plants causes less economic loss — and less attention in Washington — than the closure of a coal mine. Why?

Mines often shut down with little notice and throw hundreds out of work, dealing a body blow to the local community and dimming its outlook on the future. That tends to capture the attention of coal-state politicians like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). And that is why proposals like the one Manchin just made to build renewable energy projects are targeted not at coal plants but coal mines (E&E Daily, June 21).

Utilities, which have millions of customers and are under the sharp eye of state regulators, have a different kind of social contract.

"One reason we haven’t heard a whole lot of negative stuff is that the companies have addressed the issues," said Ann Randazzo, who until last year was the executive director of the Center for Workforce Energy Development, a nonprofit that focuses on the energy workforce pipeline.

"I don’t know a place where they closed a plant and the town died, because the company doesn’t want the employees or the town to suffer," she said. "They have a lot of customers in those towns."

The local coal-fired power plant often offers the best wages and benefits around. But the impact of its closure on the local economy is blunted because the utility spends the year or two beforehand figuring out something else for those workers to do.

Only a handful of those workers are training for something outside of coal. A few are being prepared for a hybrid future, where a utility’s power plants employ a lot fewer people doing a lot more tasks.

Those who care about climate change might be thrilled that someone like Lammi is moving from coal work to clean energy. But it says a lot about coal communities that Lammi himself isn’t all that thrilled.

The path into and out of coal

Lammi’s route into coal is a typical one. Born in Oscoda, Mich., a township on the shore of Lake Huron, he got an associate’s degree, then fixed cars at a Chevy dealership and managed an auto parts store.

Then he heard that jobs were available at Consumers Energy, an electric and gas utility that serves much of the state’s Lower Peninsula. The appeal was the same as what draws many people in small towns with few jobs into working for the power company.

"Money," Lammi said. "Consumers is a career job, and I was already topped out where I was."

He started as a meter reader and liked that it had him moving around outdoors. But moving up the pay ladder meant moving into coal. In 2010 he reported for work at Consumers’ B.C. Cobb plant outside Muskegon, Mich. He started as a laborer, doing whatever the machinists or millwrights asked him to do, and then trained to become a machinist himself.

In 2016, B.C. Cobb closed and was later demolished, but that wasn’t the end for Lammi: He moved on to Consumers’ J.H. Campbell plant, a half-hour’s drive south in West Olive.

He says he liked the work. He cut and shaped parts that need to be made or fixed. "For the most part, your task was always different day to day," he said. He was everywhere: outside in the frigid winter repairing the ash and water pipelines, or inside the boiler where temperatures reached 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

While Lammi’s coal career hummed, coal jobs at Consumers were starting to get scarce.

The fleet employed 900 people in 2013 but has now dropped to 650, according to Consumers spokesperson Brian Wheeler. After two other units, at the D.E. Karn Generating Complex on the other side of the peninsula, close in 2023, the coal job roll will drop again to 375. That will leave only Campbell, which is slated to close two units in 2031 and its last in 2040.

The same inexorable trend is occurring at Consumers’ utility neighbors.

In Minnesota, Xcel Energy Inc. has shuttered 11 coal generators in the last 15 years, with the remaining four in the state slated to close between 2023 and 2030, said Xcel spokesperson Matt Lindstrom. Those still open are running less and less. That’s in part because so many more wind turbines are now feeding the Midwestern grid. Xcel has become one of the country’s leading buyers of wind power, which beats coal on price because the wind is free.

Nearby Consumers in Michigan, DTE Energy provides electricity to the Detroit region with the help of about 920 workers at its coal plants.

But those plants will go offline in rapid fire: River Rouge later this year and Trenton Channel and St. Clair next year, leaving just two that are scheduled to retire in 2030 and 2040, according to spokesperson Renee McClelland.

These trends raise a big questions for workers like Lammi.

Where do the coal workers go?

While it may seem improbable, all three of these utilities — DTE, Consumers and Xcel — are expecting that these coal-plant transitions will occur without layoffs.

"For the most part, they’re staying within the coal plants," said McClelland.

How does a company shut down coal plants but not lay anyone off? The answer: slowly and carefully, and without necessarily making everyone happy.

"It’s not like you decided to close a Walgreens and everyone’s out of a job," said Randazzo, the workforce expert. "This will happen over four or five years or longer. The companies have a lot longer time to do some strategic workforce planning."

This is where the contrast between coal mines and coal plants is striking.

The mammoth Navajo Generating Station in Arizona featured both a coal mine and a massive, 2,250-megawatt coal generation plant before both shut down in 2019. The closure had drastically different results for workers.

The Kayenta mine, owned by Peabody Energy Corp., laid off all 265 of its remaining workers. Meanwhile, the Salt River Project (SRP), the publicly owned Arizona utility that owned the power plant, retained 225 of its 433 workers, said SRP spokesperson Scott Harelson. Those that stayed are working at natural gas plants or in warehouses, while a small cohort retrained to work in information technology jobs.

SRP did a "fantastic job of making sure that all the workers at the plant were taken care of," said Eric Frankowski, executive director of the Western Clean Energy Campaign, a nonprofit that focuses on transitioning coal plant workers.

Which isn’t to say that the closing of a coal plant doesn’t have consequences.

Many workers don’t continue with the company because they don’t want to move, and others are left commuting long distances. And the money drain doesn’t stop there.

In 2016, when Dayton Power & Light Co. turned off two coal plants in Adams County, Ohio, the county government lost $787,000 of its $8 million tax base, according to a study from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Xcel, for example, started its transition a year or two ahead of time. It "managed those workforce transitions primarily with staff retirements or attrition, reassignment of employees to other facilities, as well as training and education opportunities," Lindstrom wrote in an email.

‘A more agile workforce’

In one case, that training means something else: an entirely different kind of job, a sign of how much employment in the energy industry could change along with the fuels.

Take the example of two coal plant workers, Michael Pierce and Seth Pope. They work at Duke Energy Corp.’s Belews Creek coal plant, northeast of Winston-Salem, N.C. At 2,220 MW, it is the second largest in Duke’s fleet in North Carolina.

Pierce, 33, is an operations technician, which means checking oil levels and pressures and responding to alarms around the plant. Pope, 27, is a maintenance technician, which means welding, fixing pipes and rebuilding pumps.

Now, Duke is training both of them to work on the other’s turf.

Pierce, the operator, is working with experienced mechanics on welding and turning wrenches. Pope, the mechanic, is learning electrical skills like how to use an amp meter or rack out a circuit breaker. Each now has the same title: operations and maintenance technician.

The idea is that with fewer jobs, everyone will wear more hats. It is "a smaller workforce, a more agile workforce," said Jason Talbott, the transformation manager for Duke’s coal projects in North Carolina. "They can ebb and flow and help each other."

About 500 of Duke’s 700 coal workers in North Carolina are undergoing this transition, he said.

"Traditional coal plant jobs are single-skilled," said Talbott. "All the new technologies, be they solar, wind or natural gas combined cycle, they are for a multiskilled worker."

It’s clear that many of Duke’s coal jobs will go away. It has retired 51 coal units in states from Florida to Indiana over the last decade, with plans to retire eight more by 2025.

What is replacing them? Natural gas, for one. Belews Creek has been retrofitted and now runs on both coal and natural gas. That transition means a lot less equipment and, thus, a lot fewer workers.

Steve Farner, the executive director of the Laborers International Union of North America, pointed out all the heavy equipment a coal plant needs. His union represents coal workers at many plants, though not at Belews Creek.

"Barges, trains tracks, coal-handling equipment, conveyors, heavy machinery that needs lots of maintenance and refitting at regular intervals. Boilers have turbines that need to be replaced, coal needs to be cleaned out. Ash residue handled," he said.

"None of that happens with gas," he added.

At the same time, renewables are coming. At the end of 2020, Duke had almost 8,800 MW of wind, solar or biomass power either built or in the pipeline. That is 2,000 MW more than the coal it retired in the last decade.

Combined, that means a dramatic cut in jobs.

Talbott estimated that compared with a coal plant’s 150 to 200 workers, a natural gas plant needs 50 to 75, and a solar plant might need only two or three.

Pierce, the coal plant operations technician, looks forward to what he’ll be able to do with his new training. "I’ll be solving problems instead of just monitoring things," he said.

As far as he knows, that means he’ll continue to work at Belews Creek, an hour’s drive from where he lives. But it might mean that one day he’s pacing around a solar farm.

In Stokes County, where the Belews Creek plant sits, utility workers are far outnumbered by jobs in manufacturing, retail and health care. But they are the best-paid jobs in town and are cherished.

"This place has become home," Pierce said. "This is family right here."

Reaching wind’s pinnacle

A handful of coal workers are making the full switch to renewables, which brings us back to John Lammi and the turbine he had to climb in 12 minutes.

Lammi huffed to the turbine’s yaw deck in eight minutes, 21 seconds. "It was not the easiest thing I’ve ever done in my life," he said. Now on the yaw deck, his next test was to screw 56 bolts to the proper torque in the space of 10 minutes.

At the outset of 2020, he became one of six Consumers Energy workers to join a union apprenticeship program to become a renewable specialist. The 30-month training equips a worker to be able to troubleshoot a wind turbine, a solar farm or a utility-scale battery with equal ability.

The apprenticeship sprang from conversations three years ago between Consumers Energy and Power for America, an organization that trains workers who are part of the Utility Workers Union of America. UWUA represents about half of Consumers’ 8,000 employees.

"What’s unique about this apprenticeship is you’re tying together all three pieces: wind, solar and energy storage," said Jonathan Harmon, the executive director of Power for America. "Instead of leaving a coal plant and being out of work, they might be able to move into a new career path in the company."

The apprenticeship will graduate its first cohort of six at the end of this year.

In the classroom, they learn the math specific to electricity. They work with circuits and test equipment and get familiar with harnesses and carabiners. Then, as with all apprenticeships, they get loads of training hours in the field.

"We’re taking someone with little or no experience in the electrical space all the way through to wind turbine technician," said Todd Marsh, Consumers’ director of learning and development.

The apprenticeship’s small size is a reflection of how small of a workforce clean energy needs compared with the coal plant’s cast of hundreds.

Today, Consumers operates two wind farms with a total capacity of 80 MW and a third starting next month, with a goal of 1,000 MW by 2024 and 6,000 MW by 2040, said Wheeler. It has two solar plants and two large-scale batteries.

The three cohorts now training to service that fleet total just 18 men. Future annual cohorts will be five to 10 people, Harmon said.

Power for America hopes to expand its new renewables-specialist training to other utilities, though none has signed on so far.

‘A little dot on a map’

Lammi is excited about his new clean energy future, though not for reasons one might expect.

Mostly it’s the commute. In 2012, Consumers built its 56-turbine, 100-MW Lake Winds Energy Park in Mason County, Mich. It so happens that Lammi now lives inside it. He resides on his wife’s family’s farm, and one of the wind turbines whirls just a half-mile away, above the hay and rye and cattle.

"I did it so I wouldn’t have to spend 75 minutes in the car each way going to work. That’s a pay increase right off the bat," he said.

The view from 305 feet up isn’t bad either. "Anyone that I have shown a picture to has just been in awe," Lammi said of the times he sallies up to change the air filters or lubricate bearings in the turbine’s nacelle. "You see the beauty of the area that you don’t see from the ground. It’s really beautiful when you get up there on a nice day when the grass is green and the lakes are flat."

But ask Lammi if he’s excited to be part of the clean energy revolution, and there’s an awkward silence.

Even though he now works within it every day and can see it out his window, he questions how clean wind power actually is. "I know it’s not to the same extent as a coal plant, but I don’t think they’re as clean as what they say they are," he said. "Everything’s got to be made somewhere in a factory."

Coal workers have experienced a coal plant intimately. They have felt its heat on their faces and the power that makes its steel pipes vibrate. This affects their views of the new world of clean power.

Pierce and Pope, the two coal workers at Duke Energy, shrugged when asked about whether they were excited about participating in clean energy. Pierce doesn’t like solar ("an eyesore") and questions climate change ("I don’t know, I’m not really a scientist") but is quite impressed by what a coal plant can do.

"We’re just a little dot on a map," Pierce said of the Belews Creek coal station where he works. "We can make 2,340 megawatts of power, just our little dot."

Lammi has seen coal and wind in action, and he shares those doubts. "I have a hard time seeing where the country is going to be without large plants to produce large amounts of energy," he said.

The uncertainties of these men reflect recent opinion polls, which show that Republicans, who draw much of their support from outside the big cities in states like North Carolina and Michigan, are expressing more skepticism of renewable energy than they were four years ago (Energywire, June 14).

But that doesn’t mean they can’t be persuaded. As legislators in Washington debate whether and how to spend taxpayers’ money on a transition to clean energy, for these men it comes down to the personal.

"As long as I keep getting paid," Pierce said of a future working on wind or solar farms instead of coal, "I’m down for it."