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This story is part of our special series "Made in the USA: Ramping up clean energy manufacturing." Read more.

Clean energy’s Made-in-America movement could bring jobs for coal miners

Phil Smith of the United Mine Workers of America explains how clean energy manufacturing can help offset job losses for an industry it’s helping to replace.
By Alison F. Takemura

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A bronze statue of a coal miner is seen in profile
(Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

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Canary Media thanks KORE Power for its support of our special series on clean energy manufacturing.

The push to make clean energy products in the U.S. is projected to create a staggering 900,000 new manufacturing jobs over the next 10 years. That’s a vast need former coal miners can help fulfill.

As cheaper and cleaner energy sources displace coal in the U.S., coal miners are losing their livelihoods. The industry has shed more than half of its workforce, or about 50,000 jobs, since 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But the ramp-up of domestic clean energy manufacturing and the critical-mineral supply chain for renewables could be a lifeline for these displaced and dislocated miners. And in turn, the clean energy manufacturing sector could get a boost by sourcing talent from an experienced pool of energy workers, of which miners are one prominent example.

That’s all the more likely now that the Biden administration and Congress have passed the Inflation Reduction Act, according to Phil Smith, chief of staff of the United Mine Workers of America, the largest union representing coal miners in North America. The law, which is the biggest clean energy investment in U.S. history, contains billions of dollars to support a just transition for coal miners and designated energy communities. Key provisions include:

Smith told us the approach is a stark contrast with that taken by previous administrations — and it’s making a material difference. Clean energy manufacturers and suppliers have been reaching out to the union, signaling that they’re interested in coming to coal communities and hiring dislocated miners, Smith told Canary Media. 

Man in suit at podium
Phil Smith, chief of staff of the United Mine Workers of America (Courtesy of Phil Smith)

One company put their intention to center coal miners in writing even before passage of the IRA. In May 2022, zero-cobalt lithium-ion battery maker Sparkz signed a historic agreement with the UMWA stating that the union would recruit and train dislocated coal miners for the vast majority of 350 jobs at the plant Sparkz is building in Taylor County, West Virginia. The UMWA has already recruited about 50 miners who are eager to apply when hiring begins, which is expected later this year, according to Smith.

Smith, who helped broker the deal with Sparkz, spoke to Canary Media about how the UMWA is helping coal miners transition to clean energy manufacturing, how miners are a natural fit for the sector and the additional opportunities Smith sees for dislocated miners in the clean energy buildout.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What has the union done to help dislocated miners enter the clean energy manufacturing workforce?

After the first wave of significant job losses in the coal industry in the wake of amendments to the Clean Air Act that passed in 1990, we established the UMWA Career Centers in 1996.

It was specifically designed to help train dislocated miners and their families in a wide range of other occupations. And over the years, we have trained close to 18,000, dislocated miners and family members to do other work. So we have a lot of experience of doing that — long before the clean energy revolution came along.

It’s not new that coal miners have been losing their jobs for a while, but what is new is that there are finally government incentives to bring something into these distressed areas to replace those jobs.

What makes coal miners a good fit for clean energy manufacturing jobs with companies like Sparkz?

With coal miners, you have people who are already used to doing shift work, used to doing difficult labor and are already used to operating very sophisticated machinery to get their jobs done. So transitioning from working as a coal miner to working in a manufacturing facility is really not that big of a transition for a lot of these folks.

For example, there’s a thing called a longwall in many underground coal mines. It’s essentially a Caterpillar-like machine that stretches over perhaps 1,500 yards across the face of coal and has a very large shear that is cutting the coal onto a fast-moving conveyor belt. Keeping that equipment operating in top condition requires several people and know-how.

We don’t mine coal with picks and shovels anymore; we mine it with very sophisticated machinery. Coal workers know how to operate it and maintain it.

What makes the deal with battery-maker Sparkz particularly good for coal miners?

There’s a wide range of folks in northern West Virginia who used to work in coal mines, but those mines are closed. So they have been forced, unfortunately, to take jobs that don’t pay as well, or multiple jobs to equal what they lost.

And so here’s an opportunity for them to take a job that would be pretty equal to what they were making when they were in the coal mines, with the same sort of benefits.

The average coal miner under contract is making anywhere between $31 and $36 an hour. They have very good health care with minimal out-of-pocket costs. They have great time off from work; they have a good level of 401(k) contributions; they have vacation and paid sick leave.

Sparkz is interested in providing those same sorts of benefits.

Sparkz also signed an agreement with the UMWA to remain neutral instead of what’s far more common: being antagonistic to union representation. What does that mean for workers?

When workers do come to work at the Sparkz plant, if a majority of them sign a union-authorization card saying they want representation, then the company will recognize us as the collective-bargaining agent. So once they get this facility opened, we’ll be able to get that process started.

Have other clean energy companies besides Sparkz partnered with the union?

Not as fully as Sparkz has. We’ve had other conversations with some other new energy companies that are looking at coming into the area.

One of the main reasons people are looking at that is that, in the Inflation Reduction Act, Congress passed significant tax incentives for companies that are in the renewable energy supply chain to locate manufacturing facilities in coal-producing areas where jobs have been lost. So that’s enticing to a lot of companies to think through whether or not they want to do that.

I don’t know that any of them yet have final decisions about whether or not they’re going to do this. But our belief is that, if you’re gonna do it, and if you want to hire dislocated coal miners to take advantage of all the tax incentives you can get by doing that, we’ve got the list. So it’s always best to come to us first and ask us how we can help because we’re more than willing to help.

Another way for dislocated miners to work in the clean energy transition is by mining critical minerals containing lithium, nickel and cobalt. What interest are you seeing in members regarding that, and how is the union supporting them?

A lot of it depends on where those mines are with respect to where the coal mines used to be, right? It’s not necessarily true that there’s going to be a lithium mine within driving distance of where a coal mine closed — someplace that will make it easy for somebody who lost a job in a mine to get to without having to move.

But what is possible, and we’re looking forward to working with people on this, is going back into shut-down coal mines, and essentially re-mining the waste to get critical minerals and rare earth elements out of that.

There appears to be a large market for that throughout most of the places where coal mines used to be, where there are waste piles and tailings ponds. And that would have a dual effect of both being able to get those materials that we need and also cleaning up the waste areas that are there now at the same time.

We are looking at putting dislocated workers back to work doing that kind of work. There are not a whole lot of companies that have begun that process yet, but there are several that are interested. We’ve had conversations with a couple.

What more can the federal government do to support clean energy manufacturing and mining jobs for dislocated coal workers?

There are a couple of areas. One is to speed up the process to get some of these new mines open. You’ve probably heard about Senator Manchin and others who want to speed up the time it takes to get permits to make this work. That’s very important.

Right now, it takes between four to six years, sometimes longer, from the time somebody says they want to go in and extract — be it coal, a mineral or metal — before that production can actually start.

Nobody’s interested in going in like they used to: tearing up the environment, creating lasting effects that last for generations. But at the same time, it seems to us that we can do this in such a way that we can speed up the process so workers who are losing their coal-mining jobs now aren’t going to have to wait for four or five or six or seven years to potentially get a mining job.

That, to us, is probably the most critical thing that can happen now.

And with that, to continue the funding that the Biden administration and the Congress have put into place over the last couple of years to transform coalfield areas of the country and to provide the incentives to bring jobs — incentives that are in place now and even to expand on them to the extent that we can.

Those are two things that I think are very much needed now — and well into the future.

Headquartered in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho with clients on every continent, KORE Power provides functional solutions to meet the growing demand for green economic expansion and a decarbonized future. As a fully integrated provider of battery cells and clean energy technology and solutions, KORE drives the energy transition through direct access to superior tech, clean energy manufacturing, and unmatched support for clean energy jobs and resilient, sustainable communities worldwide. KORE Power’s robust portfolio provides the commercial, industrial, utility and defense markets with next-generation battery cells, advanced energy storage systems that scale to grid+, intuitive asset management, and EV power and charging infrastructure support.

Alison F. Takemura is staff writer at Canary Media. She reports on home electrification, building decarbonization strategies and the clean energy workforce.