Summary: Only a quarter to approximately half actually created.
MARCH 31, 2011, 12:15 PMTOM ZELLER JR.
No one should be surprised to learn that in trying to woo a reluctant community, developers in just about every industry tend to exaggerate — or perhaps optimistically overestimate — the number of jobs they expect to create by building that new shopping mall, industrial park, widget factory or other project.
But in a study released on Thursday, the folks at the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies in Chattanooga, Tenn., decided to take an in-depth look at the promises made by purveyors of new coal plants.
Their findings seem to suggest that the trade-off that many cash-strapped communities make — specifically, accepting the health and environmental risks that come with having a new coal-burning power plant in their midst, in return for a boost in employment — is not what it’s cracked up to be.
“I think the overarching issue here is that for a lot of the communities that are being asked to host these plants, there’s an extremely difficult cost-benefit analysis that they’re being asked to make,” said David Eichenthal, the president of the Ochs Center. “They are aware of the environmental and health issues that you take on when you have a coal plant put in your backyard. But many of these communities are in dire economic straits, and it tips the balance for them to allow this to occur.”
“But what they’re being promised,” he said, “isn’t what’s being delivered.”
The analysis looked at the six largest new coal-fired power plants to come online between 2005 and 2009, including facilities in Pottawattamie County, Iowa; Milam and Robertson Counties, Tex.; Otoe County, Neb.; Berkeley County, S.C.; and Marathon County, Wisc. All were plants exceeding capacity of 500 megawatts.
Researchers combed through each project’s initial proposals and job projection data, including public statements, published documents and other material. They then set about taking the pulse of employment — before, during and after construction — in the areas where the projects were built, relying chiefly on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.
The big idea: Even accounting for other ups and downs in employment activity in these counties, projects of this magnitude should stand out amid the data din, permitting some ground truthing of the coal projects’ actual impact on the local economy.
The results: only a little over half, or 56 percent of every 1,000 jobs projected, appeared to be actually created as a result of the coal plants’ coming online. And in four of the six counties, the projects delivered on just over a quarter of the jobs projected. (emphasis added)
Just one county, Pottawattamie in Iowa, saw an increase in construction employment that was roughly commensurate with the numbers predicted before the project there got under way. That was the $1.2 billion Walter Scott unit number 4 project, operated by MidAmerican Energy.
“The fact that only one of the large plants built in the past five years appears to have provided the number of jobs it promised,” Mr. Eichenthal said in a statement, “shows that communities being asked to take on the burden of hosting new coal plants needs to take promises of new jobs with more than a grain of salt.”
Of course, targets are easy to find on this front — and not just among fossil fuels. The Environmental Working Group, for example, feverishly deconstructed the ethanol industry’s job claims back in 2009 with its Kernel-nomics analysis.
The highly mutable subject of “green jobs” has continually come under scrutiny — including from a group of academics peddling a paper laying out seven “myths” attending the notion. Their paper — quickly and widely criticized by others — warned of sinister government mandates and subsidies “impoverishing our society.”
A less reactionary meditation on the topic, from Ed Glaser, appeared on our sister blog, Economix, in January.
Meanwhile, in Ontario, a government task force recently suggested that the provincial government probably overestimated the number of jobs that its aggressive Green Energy Act would create — in large part because it didn’t factor in increases in electricity costs, which would stymie production and business expansion and in turn tend to mute job creation.
Still, the squishiness of job numbers aside, not all projects are alike, and coal power plants are an inarguably dirty business involving all manner of harmful emissions like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, mercury and planet-warming carbon dioxide. They are also linked to thousands of deaths annually, according to at least one estimate.
As the Ochs Center report notes, 11 new coal plants representing 6,682 megawatts of generating capacity began operating in 2010 — the largest single uptick in coal power capacity in a generation.
But the economics of adding new coal power capacity in the United States has become increasingly difficult to pencil out, given rising prices, greater scrutiny of the health, climate and other environmental hazards attending coal power, and the emergence of a medley of alternatives working together — chiefly wind and solar, balanced out by newly available natural gas.
A report published this month by the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group based in Cambridge, Mass., suggested that any investment in coal power capacity — new or existing — was probably money wasted.
“Replacing old, dirty coal plants with cleaner, cheaper, less risky alternatives would be a much better bet,” Barbara Freese, a co-author of the report and senior policy analyst for the group’s climate and energy program, was quoted as saying. “And it would save lives, protect our health and reduce the emissions that cause climate change.”
Of course, global events are keeping the domestic energy picture ever-fluid, and while President Obama spent much of his energy-vision speech at Georgetown University on Wednesday extolling the virtues of biofuels and electric cars, he did say, in passing, that the nation would need to “examine how do we make clean coal” a part of the mix.
That apparently still left the National Mining Association feeling a bit slighted. The group issued a press release stating that the president had “overlooked coal’s potential” to bring the nation toward its goal of energy independence.
“We urge the president and Congress to work with the U.S. coal industry,” the statement continued, “to unlock the full potential of American coal for providing the fuels to make our nation stronger.”