The balance between jobs in the renewable energy and fossil fuel sectors could play on India’s energy transition

  • Renewable energy jobs are claimed to embrace the shifting millions, involved directly or indirectly in the coal sector. The transition is far more complex than it appears.
  • In fact, studies have identified that renewable energy jobs may not always be a local option for fossil fuel workers as the region where each is based may not be the same.
  • Energy researchers and those involved with the coal-sector workers point out that for the transition of coal sector workers to be ‘just’, the ground reality needs to be considered and a holistic plan needs to be formulated.

The renewable energy sector is being showcased as a magic bullet, where the loss of jobs in the coal sector would be offset by the opportunities for jobs in green energy. Over the years, thousands of jobs have come up in the renewable energy sector in India, but they are not at the scale and permanence needed to counterbalance the impact that the coal sector and its ecosystem face as India transitions away from it.

Sandeep Pai, who is senior research lead, CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies) Energy Security and Climate Change Program, said, many studies have shown that there may be more net energy jobs if we take bold climate action to keep warming well below two degree Celsius.

“However, my research shows that in many cases, both in India and abroad, it may not be possible to create these renewable energy jobs locally for fossil fuel workers who would lose jobs. In short, the benefits of the clean energy transition may be for new people but not necessarily to people in the fossil fuel industry who would lose jobs,” Pai told Mongabay-India.

Citing examples, he explained that there is a complete spatial mismatch between where suitable wind resources are and where coal mining happens in India.

“Thus, wind power is possibly not an option as most of the suitable wind resources are in southern and western India while coal mining happens in the eastern part of India. However, from a resources suitability point of view, there are adequate solar resources for installing solar projects even though the scale required in those states is huge … also in this case we are only talking about direct workforce,” he said.

In January 2020, a study published by Pai had said that India would need to scale up its current solar capacity to nearly 30 times, about 1,000 gigawatts (GW), to transition about half a million people directly working in coal mines.

The energy researcher emphasised that if we take into account the indirect and induced jobs then the installed capacity of the solar power will have to be even higher. “So basically, the shift to clean energy would not necessarily go to fossil fuel workers – instead it will likely go to other states. It will not necessarily go to coal workers who will lose their jobs,” he said.

His latest study, in July 2021, published as part of his doctoral dissertation at the University of British Columbia, reinforces the point that “renewable energy jobs may not always be a local option for fossil fuel workers.”

According to Pai’s study, close to 40 percent of India’s districts have some form of coal dependency and that 3.6 million people are either directly or indirectly employed in the coal mining and power sectors in 159 districts in India.

His research notes that renewable jobs “may or may not be suitable replacements for fossil fuel jobs” and thus future work “could assess the suitability of other industries for job replacement.” It points out that the just transition is not only a jobs problem but requires a “holistic understanding of different social, economic, demographic, and other issues.”

“What is required for a just transition may vary at the regional level within a country; different regions may have different just transition considerations,” the study said. Pai’s study showed that, in India, nearly all the local coal mining areas are suitable for solar power generation including in the key coal-producing states but no areas in the key coal-producing states are suitable for wind-power generation.

Read more: About 40 percent of India’s districts have some form of coal dependency

Are renewable energy jobs a feasible option for fossil fuel workers?

Bold climate action and large-scale shift to renewable energy, which many believe can trigger huge job opportunities, is being talked about in the field of energy research but there is apprehension in some circles over whether it will actually show the results on the ground.

Ramendra Kumar, President of All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), one of the five major unions in the coal sector, told Mongabay-India that renewable sector jobs are not comparable to the jobs provided by the coal sector ecosystem and that is why the conversation around the transition is futile.

“Renewable sector offers much fewer employment opportunities – direct or indirect – compared to what people can get in the coal sector. What will happen to people and their employment issues whose land is taken away for renewable power projects?” Kumar questioned.

The government is pushing for large solar parks. Photo by Jitendra Parihar (Thomson Reuters Foundation)/Flickr.
The government is pushing for large solar parks. Photo by Jitendra Parihar (Thomson Reuters Foundation)/Flickr.

He said if the renewable sector and the jobs in it is such a “magic wand”, why is the government pushing to substantially increase the production in the coal sector. “The transition is not possible right now … not for 30-40 years at least. There is no substitute for the coal sector right now. In the renewable sector, there are no great opportunities for rehabilitation of thousands of people employed in the coal sector,” he said.

Kumar’s remarks hold ground as the Indian government has been pushing for significantly ramping up coal production in India to end imports of coal and give a boost to the sluggish economy post-COVID-19 slowdown. In fact, several state governments and fossil fuel companies are also justifying new fossil fuel projects and expansion of existing ones claiming they would help create local jobs and short-term gains.

Pai’s latest study in July 2021 notes that research on coal mining has shown that, unlike other professional workers who migrate to find new jobs when they are laid off, most coal miners become ‘inactive’ when they lose their jobs.

“This is due to a strong connection to their local community, and the fact that most are older and less skilled. At the same time, research has found that some younger coal miners migrate within the region when they lose their jobs. Thus, if renewable energy jobs are to be considered an employment option for coal miners, it is important to understand renewable energy jobs’ potential in local coal mining areas,” it said.

The proper implementation of just transition strategies for fossil fuel workers and their communities is crucial to increase the general acceptability of climate policies among fossil fuel-dependent communities, indicate energy researchers.

Read more: Nearly 30 times more solar power needed to transition coal jobs, says study

The government is pushing for green jobs as well

The government of India is aware of the potential issues in the just transition of the energy sector as well. It has been pushing for renewable energy jobs too.

For instance, the union government had launched a Suryamitra Skill Development Programme in 2015, aimed to train people for employability into the solar sector, with a target to develop 50,000 Suryamitras by March 2020 for the country. The major areas covered in the training included the basics of electricity, the fundamentals of solar energy, solar photovoltaic power plants and systems, the balance of system components, tools and equipment used for site survey including load assessment, system installation and inspection.

Million of people depend directly or indirectly on the coal sector for their survival. Photo by Joe Gratz/Flickr.
Millions of people depend directly or indirectly on the coal sector for their survival. Photo by Joe Gratz/Flickr.

Till March 2020, according to the government, 47,166 Suryamitras were trained but 18,250 got employment as per available data. The complete placement data of 2018-19 and 2019-20 was yet to be received, specified the government

Vivek P. Adhia, India country director of the Institute for Sustainable Communities, said: “All textbook indications point towards a stupendous increase in green jobs, in fact, double the fossil-fuel related jobs by 2030, potentially scaling up to five times by 2050 in the Indian context.”

“This transition would completely depend on how we are able to design the ecosystem right. Currently, most renewable energy job opportunities come in from the unorganised sector, leaving it susceptible to externalities, as we saw during the COVID-19 aftermath, where distributed renewable energy jobs slashed by one-fifth. So as we look at energy transitions, it is imperative to address institutional linkages that define the sector, plus offer positive feedback loop between green jobs and sustainable manufacturing,” Adhia told Mongabay-India.


Banner image: Several organisations are training people to empower them to find work in the renewable energy sector. Photo by Abbie Trayler-Smith (Panos Pictures/Department for International Development)/Flickr.

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