Solar industry on the rise as sun sets on coal mining

In his Feb. 23 op-ed, “Coal mining continues legacy of affordable energy, job source in era of dubious green alternatives” (Special Report: Energy), Massey Energy’s Don Blankenship laid out his case for continuing our nation’s reliance on coal. But the only legacy coal mining is leaving is one of a declining industry, dirty air and destroyed lands. Rather than relying on an industry of the past, we should be looking at the tens of thousands of stable jobs in solar power and other renewable energy sources, and the hundreds of thousands more such jobs to be created.

Solar creates more jobs per watt than any other energy source, more than double the jobs that coal does, and can do so in every state. In the last year alone, the solar industry grew by supporting 18,000 American jobs, even as the economy as a whole declined.

Many of these jobs are being created in America’s manufacturing centers, like the upper Midwest. For example, Toledo, Ohio now serves as a hub for solar research and manufacturing, putting laid-off Americans employed by the glass and auto industries back to work. Meanwhile, the number of coal jobs in the state continues to decline.

Mr. Blankenship claims that the government acts against the interests of the fossil fuel industry. This is simply not true. According to a study by the Environmental Law Institute, fossil fuels — a developed, mature sector — received $72 billion in federal subsidies from 2002 to 2008. During the same period, renewable energy – a new, emerging sector – received $29 billion. Of that, solar received less than $2 billion.

Over the last 20 years, the oil and gas industries received 74,000 permits to operate on public lands. Solar has received none. Meanwhile, nearly 6.4 million acres have been disturbed by surface coal mining operations since 1930, according to the Journal of Environmental Quality.

A new national survey conducted by Gotham Research Group found that 75 percent of Americans support developing solar energy on public lands. When asked to rank top energy options for government support, Americans chose solar and wind energy, while coal was supported by just 4 percent of respondents.

If the public doesn’t support government aid for fossil fuels, why does that aid continue? Because coal outspends clean energy inside the Beltway. For every $1 the solar industry spent in the last election cycle donating to candidates for federal office, the coal industry spent $25.

Congress faces a choice. It can continue to prop up dirty, antiquated fuel sources like the ones Mr. Blankenship advocates for. Or, it can instead level the playing field so that clean, job-creating solar will be a strong energy source for Americans today and the future.

From Rhone Resch, president and CEO, Solar Energy Industries Association, Washington