Utility Jobs Lost as New Power Plants Need Fewer Workers

As coal and nuclear power plants around the U.S. close due to competitive pressures, the number of people employed in making electricity is shrinking.

Older power plants are being retired at an unprecedented pace as power producers wage a fierce fight for market share. They are being supplanted by newer power plants fired by natural gas, as well as wind and solar farms, which often are simpler to operate and require fewer workers.

The Center for Energy Workforce Development, a group backed by six major utility industry groups, estimates that total direct utility employment has fallen to 505,000 from 550,000 since 2006. That is eroding a stable source of well-paying jobs, especially in rural areas, and generating local political pressure at a time when President Donald Trump has made blue-collar job retention a major issue.

Many industry leaders believe the shift is inevitable.

“The power sector is just not going to contribute to the economy in terms of jobs the way it once did,” said Curt Morgan, president and chief executive of Vistra Energy Corp , the electricity producer which used to be part of the former Energy Future Holdings Corp., and is planning to merge with rival Dynegy Inc.

Last week, Vistra shut down a power plant in Texas, along with a nearby mine that supplied it with coal via a 15-mile-long conveyor belt. Altogether, they employed 450 people.

Later this summer, Vistra expects to open up one of the largest solar farms in the country in the western part of the state. It will employ two people—and they might be part time, according to the company.

It generally takes five times as many coal mining and power plant workers to generate a megawatt hour of electricity as wind-farm operators, according to BW Research Partnership, an economic and workforce consultancy. Coal takes 50% more workers than gas, and twice as many as solar, it estimates.

“Natural gas, solar and wind are all less job intensive for ongoing operations,” says Philip Jordan, a vice president at the Carlsbad, Calif., based group, which has analyzed worker data for the U.S. Energy Department.

Coal plants require people and machines to unload the combustible rocks, sort them into piles and prepare them to be pulverized into a fine mist, which is then blown into boilers. Once the coal is burned, the resulting ash needs to be collected and disposed.

Natural gas is typically delivered straight to power plants by pipeline—no unloading required. It combusts completely, so it doesn’t need people or machines to handle the residue.

Wind and solar farms don’t require fuel to make power, so they don’t need workers to procure, deliver or process it. Solar farms also have few moving parts requiring maintenance or repair. Some newer wind turbines use permanent magnet motors instead of gearboxes connected to shafts, reducing the maintenance required.

Nuclear power plants, the most complex power producers—and the ones with the highest safety and security risks—require the most workers, including about 9,000 armed guards at the country’s 62 nuclear facilities.

Running Exelon Corp.’s 2,300-megawatt Limerick Generating Station in Pottstown, Penn., requires 800 workers. A two-hour drive north, Invenergy LLC is building the Lackawanna Energy Center, a 1,480-megawatt natural-gas fired plant. Once running, it will employ 30 people. Both will compete to provide electricity to the same regional power grid.

Forty-two percent of the electricity in the U.S. was generated by natural gas, wind and solar in 2016, the most recent year available, according to federal data. That is up from 29% five years earlier. Coal and nukes went from 62% to 50%.

A flood of inexpensive natural gas, created by the fracking boom, helped drive the change along with state mandates and federal tax credits for more renewable energy. But lower operating costs for the newer plants helped as well.

Puget Sound Energy, a utility based in Bellevue, Wash., plans to close two of the four units at the coal-burning Colstrip Power Plant in Montana. About 100 workers will lose their jobs when the 614 megawatts of power are taken down by 2022.

Its newest large power source is a wind farm completed in 2012, the Lower Snake River Energy Project. The 149 turbines there generate less power, about 343 megawatts. But they take far fewer people to keep running: about 20 full-time employees.

“The big difference is that a coal plant has many more systems” requiring maintenance and upkeep, said Grant Ringel, a spokesman for Puget Sound.

As older coal and nuclear plants close, the loss of well-paying jobs has become a sensitive political issue, especially in rural communities. Representatives of the wind and gas industries are quick to point out that they are creating good jobs in similar parts of the country.

Hannah Hunt, a senior analyst for the American Wind Energy Association, said the permanent jobs being created by the wind industry are “well-paying jobs and they allow people to have a stable employment for a number of years.”

A spokesman for Invenergy, which is building the Lackawanna natural gas plant in Pennsylvania, noted that the 30 jobs being created were for skilled technicians and plant operators and would pay, on average, about $125,000 a year.

That doesn’t do much for Dave Barkemeyer, the elected judge in Milam County, Texas, where the coal mine and plant Vistra Energy is closing are located. He estimated that the closure would erode about 15% of the county’s tax base.

Some solar developers have recently expressed interest in building farms in Milam County, but that wouldn’t replace the jobs and revenue lost, Mr. Barkemeyer said.

“A solar farm would have some value but we’re losing very good jobs, high-paying jobs. Union jobs,” he said.

Write to Russell Gold at [email protected]