U.S. Lags in Preparing for a Just Transition to Decarbonization
The United States is failing coal and nuclear plant workers who are seeking a just transition to a decarbonized economy, while their counterparts in many European countries face much better odds.
The difference comes down to leadership, writes Greentech Media. Ahead of the pack is Germany, which agreed earlier in the year “to a €40 billion (US$45 billion) compensation package for workers affected by the country’s planned phaseout of coal generation by 2038.” And then there is Spain, whose policy-makers agreed last month to support a just transition plan to assist “2,300 workers across 12 thermal power plants that are due to close this year.”
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But no such federal support plan exists for equivalent workers in the U.S., said Tim Judson, executive director of the Maryland-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service. Even at the state level, support for coal miners and other labourers is currently “almost non-existent,” said Judson, though he noted that there are “a lot of efforts going on” to put such measures in place.
Case in point: the “very robust” support package secured for workers at California utility PG&E’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, which will close for good in 2025—making for a rare U.S. addition to global jurisdictions that are making good on the promise of a just transition. Germany, Spain, and California are “moving aggressively to decarbonize their energy sectors,” and have deliberately made plant closures part of their plan, reports Greentech.
Meanwhile, some individual companies are taking “a more proactive approach” to helping transitioning workers. German energy giant Uniper, for example, hopes to rehire at least some of its work force by converting its coal plants into lower-emitting gas ones, and will, according to a spokesperson, “take care of every single employee, should he or she be affected by a closure.”
While such efforts might “look good on paper,” their real-world effects have yet to be proven, said Diana Junquera Curiel, energy industry director with international union federation IndustriALL.
“The level of practical support depends on the prevailing political sentiment in a country,” she told Greentech. In Spain, for example, coal plant closures were “sat on” for eight years by a previous government, and only a change in the political winds brought the just transition plan back to life at the last minute.
Such government support is critical, Curiel added, because while renewable energy projects like wind and solar plants require large construction crews, they often take “no more than a handful of people to operate.”
A great deal of support and planning is yet needed to ensure that legacy generation workers, retired along with their plants, do not end up on the unemployment line, writes Greentech. With U.S. coal-fired power generation expected to fall to just 13% and nuclear to 12% of total demand by 2050—compared to 24% and 20%, respectively, in 2019—American workers will be hit hard without a just transition plan that works.