The Ohio University study is the first to quantify the broad economic impact of utility-scale solar projects for the state.
Coal’s downturn has taken a toll on Appalachian Ohio, but solar power could be one step on a potential path forward as the region’s economy tries to rebound.
A recent analysis by Ohio University suggests that utility-scale solar projects could create tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity in the state.
The analysis is the first attempt to quantify the potential long-term, collective impact of large solar projects in the state, as opposed to individual developments. It concludes that the sector could support between 18,000 and 54,000 jobs during construction over several decades depending on how much the state embraces solar power.
Ohio’s mining and logging jobs reached a 15-year high in late 2014, at just under 16,000 workers, although many of those jobs were less temporary than a typical solar project construction job. However, the job estimates in the Ohio University report would likely occur over the course of a few decades.
“It’s not like all of these jobs are going to get constructed in two years,” said Gilbert Michaud, a policy analyst and lead author of the report. “They will be staggered as we look ahead to the future.” Construction work in other fields could also help fill in any gaps.
Southwest Ohio is especially well-suited for the projects because of the quality of the solar resource for photovoltaics and the availability of land that could host large solar projects, Michaud said, especially when compared to more densely populated areas in the eastern part of the PJM grid region.
Clean energy advocates and rural economic boosters are hopeful that solar and other clean energy could help transition the state’s rural areas from fading coal employment. Various groups also hope the state will pursue more options beyond the natural gas industry, which has sometimes brought in large numbers of workers from outside the state.
Read more: Survival is anything but certain for coal country
One four-state coalition, called Reimagine Appalachia, issued a policy blueprint this summer to help states make the transition away from fossil fuels, which is already underway to some degree. That plan includes a call for extensive grid modernization, other infrastructure upgrades, and conservation work.
“We need a smarter grid, with more efficient and decentralized generation built by union labor, including utility-scale solar farms on remediated brownfields,” the coalition’s blueprint said. “We also need investments in energy storage for renewable resources.”
Switching to solar
Gary Easton’s great-grandfather began working in coal mines when he was just nine years old. Now Easton heads up a solar installation company called Appalachian Renewable Power-Solar in Stewart, Ohio. Two of his crew members are former fossil fuel laborers who worked on pipeline projects or in oil fields before moving into renewable energy.
“In reality solar installation is construction,” Easton said. “I have found over the years running my business that the folks that are able to jump right in the quickest are folks that have a strong background in construction or the trades.”
The Ohio University analysis, published on Aug. 28, shows that if the state added 2.5 gigawatts of capacity from utility-scale solar projects — an amount less than what’s already pending before the Ohio Power Siting Board — it would create 18,000 jobs and $3.2 billion in economic impact during construction. Another $2.2 billion in economic benefits would accrue over the following four decades, the report forecasts.
The impact would increase proportionately under a moderate or aggressive scenario, in which the state added 5 or 7.5 gigawatts of utility-scale solar. Under the latter, 54,000 jobs and $9.6 billion in economic impact would be expected during construction, with another $6.4 billion in benefits coming later.
The analysis used the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s standard Jobs and Economic Development Impact (JEDI) model for calculating jobs and economic impacts.
Those projects can translate into “careers for the men and women of the IBEW,” said Steve Crum, a representative of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Many union members are already based in Ohio’s rural farm areas, he noted. “They know how to work on things and how to fix things, how to put in a hard day’s work,” he said.
Read more: In Ohio’s coal country, pandemic pushes unemployment rate from bad to worse
Crews for APR-Solar’s workers have worked on smaller solar projects, including installations on homes, barns and industrial facilities. And with less than half a percent of Ohio’s rooftops having solar energy, Easton foresees lots of room for growth and job opportunities.
Although technical schools do a good job of training, people who’ve worked in jobs related to oil and gas, coal, and other fields can bring a lot of value to the field, in Easton’s view. “For any kind of construction, you have to be able to adapt and react. Those really are the skills that serve us well,” he said.
Amanda Woodrum, a senior researcher for Policy Matters Ohio, said ideally the region can draw on displaced workers from fossil fuel industries to “help us build the Appalachia we want to live in.”
“This is not about retraining and relocating our skilled workforce for jobs they don’t want in places they don’t want to go to,” Woodrum said when the Reimagine Appalachia blueprint was released on July 21.
Attention also should be paid to ensuring opportunities for women, people of color, formerly incarcerated and other marginalized populations, said policy analyst Quenton King of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy during the blueprint release. For those people, opportunities in conservation, clean energy, and modernization of grid and other infrastructure “could make them whole for the very first time.”
An August 2020 update from the Economic Policy Institute showed that unemployment among Ohio’s African Americans was roughly twice the overall rate for the first half of this year. Disparities in educational opportunities play a role, along with the economic consequences of a “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Read more: How energy issues and civil rights issues intersect
Green Energy Ohio has had a solar industry training program at Mansfield’s Richland Correctional Institution since 2015. The program has necessarily been put on hold during the pandemic. But Green Energy Ohio “absolutely” wants to resume its program with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction once it’s safe to do so, said Executive Director Jane Harf.
“Prior to the pandemic shutdown, ODRC was looking at expanding the program to other facilities beyond Richland, and even to including female inmates,” Harf said. She had hoped to get a grant last year to fund six-month apprenticeships for program graduates once they were released. “We are looking for new opportunities to submit it,” she said.
Meanwhile, more than half a million Ohioans remained unemployed in July. And the Appalachian Regional Commission has already designated multiple counties in Appalachian Ohio as economically at-risk or distressed for fiscal year 2021.
“Appalachia is rich in natural resources of all kinds. Appalachia should be by all measures one of the richest regions in the world, but in fact it’s not,” Woodrum said. “This was true 20 years ago, and it remains true now. And the situation has only been exacerbated by the COVID epidemic.”