As coal plants are shuttered due to increasing regulation and competition from cheap natural gas and renewables, coal industry jobs are being shed by the thousands, according to new research from Duke University

From 2008 to 2012, the U.S. coal industry, from mining to power plants, lost nearly 50,000 jobs, about 12 percent of the total during the five-year period. The research did not include coal jobs that weren’t associated with electricity production.

During the same period, wind and solar added about 79,000 jobs and natural gas tacked on more than 94,000 jobs. When the researchers also accounted for indirect jobs, natural gas, wind and solar brought in nearly 220,000 jobs. Hydro and nuclear were not included as the numbers were relatively steady throughout the timeframe.

The figures for coal are probably even starker since 2012. Coal’s dominant position in the U.S. electricity market is increasingly under threat with every passing year, a trend that is only gaining momentum

In 2014, the U.S. Energy Information Administration increased its short-term coal retirement prediction by nearly 50 percent, with an estimate that about 60 gigawatts will retire by 2016. Meanwhile, a report from The Solar Foundation found that there were more than 173,000 solar jobs in the U.S. in 2014, an increase of nearly 22 percent over the previous year.

The research paper from Duke, led by Drew Haerer at the Nicholas School of the Environment, did not take into account construction, installation and manufacturing, but it did account for operations and maintenance such as mining, extraction, transportation and distribution. For fossil fuel jobs, construction and installation are regarded as short-term work, such as when power plants are being built, and they make up only a fraction of the overall jobs picture.

But for wind, the number of O&M jobs compared to construction and installation is about equal, and for solar, O&M is the lower figure, the researchers noted. The methodology somewhat skews the results, particularly because it does not account for distributed solar and those installation jobs. The report from The Solar Foundation, for instance, is projecting that nearly 119,000 of 210,000 solar jobs in 2015 will be in installation.

Even with the difficulty in analyzing job growth figures for specific energy industries, the authors found that natural gas, wind and solar all have higher multipliers of indirect to direct jobs. Coal creates about two indirect jobs for every direct one. That figure rises to about three for natural gas, while wind and solar might be as high as 10, although the authors cautioned the latter estimate may be somewhat inflated.

The overall growth in jobs in emerging energy technologies is not creating opportunity equally across the U.S. Coal jobs lost in states such as Kentucky and West Virginia are not being replaced at the same pace with job opportunities in the cleantech or natural-gas sectors. 

“The near- to moderate-term picture for jobs in the coal industry does not look promising,” stated Haerer, urging policymakers to consider options to adapt at a local level through stronger renewable energy policy or job retraining.