Chattanooga's Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies has completed a first-ever report to compare the number of jobs promised by coal-fired power plants to the actual jobs brought to a community where one is built.
And the jobs are few, especially when compared to the environmental and health concerns that accompany coal-fired plants, according to the study.
In four of the five areas where coal-fired power plants came on line from 2005 to 2009, construction and operations delivered only a fraction of the jobs projected by officials touting the power plant benefits to local residents and county officials, said Ochs Center President and CEO David Eichenthal.
"There are clear costs in terms of environmental and health risks, but the thing that always sells local communities [on siting the plants] is the promise of jobs," Eichenthal said. "What we found is that the costs are clear, but the benefits are not what they're cracked up to be."
Currently coal provides 45 percent of the nation's power.
Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association, did not specifically address the study's findings. However, the loss of jobs in counties where the plants were built could well be due to the recession.
"The plant construction likely reduced the loss. I think it is standard for companies to round up on direct and indirect jobs, and underestimate plant construction costs," he said. "I'm sure a similar study could be done on gas plants, as all have the same incentive, [and definitely wind plants]."
Popovich also countered that the coal plant construction jobs paid about 40 percent better - about $71,000 annually - than the all-wage average in mining states.
The Ochs Center undertook the study, funded by the Rockefeller Family Fund, after 11 new coal plants were commissioned in 2010 - the most in a single year in 25 years. Another 21 new coal-fired power plants had been permitted by regulators as of January and more are vying for approval, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's National Energy Technological Laboratory.
But there are concerns about the environmental and health effects of coal plants, as well as concern about their carbon emissions. In March, the American Lung Association reported that an analysis of EPA pollution reports shows that coal-fired power plants release more toxic air pollutants such as arsenic and lead than any other U.S. industrial pollution source. The plants also emit the components of smog, which contributes to global warming.
For the study, Ochs analysts looked at the projections and final actual jobs from the six largest new plants that began operations between 2005 and 2009. They were in Nebraska, Texas, South Carolina and Wisconsin.
Key findings include:
• For every 100 new construction jobs promised, just over half, 56 percent, were realized.
• In four of the six counties where new plants were built, coal plant construction projected 6,370 jobs and delivered just 1,730 jobs- just over 27 percent.
• In all six counties, jobs declined duronstruction, suggesting that many new jobs were going to workers coming from outside the county.
The study says the nature of coal plant construction makes it possible that much of a plant's $1 billion-plus investment will "leak" out of its host economy because labor and materials are specialized and often imported.
"It is possible that employment impacts will be minimal - or even negative," the report states.
TVA's coal stance
While the national number of new and planned coal-fired plants is up, none of the new or proposed facilities is in the Tennessee Valley Authority's power region.
In fact, TVA's new 20-year power planning blueprint could cut the utility's coal-fired generation by nearly a third in the next six years. TVA now gets 46 percent of its power from coal-fired plants.
"Curbing emissions is a goal for many utilities and industries across the nation, including TVA," TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore said when TVA's plan was announced last month.
TVA's $3 million strategic plan, developed over the past two years to guide how the federal utility will develop future energy sources, calls for energy conservation and more nuclear power to meet most of the region's future power needs.
The utility already had planned to reduce its coal-fired generation by 1,000 megawatts by 2015 by idling units at its Widows Creek plant in Alabama, Jon Sevier plant in Tennessee and Shawnee plant in Kentucky. The new plan could double and possibly triple that forecast.
But TVA's example, too, shows few jobs in coal power plants.
Only 2,650 people are employed at all 11 of the utility's plants in three states - Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy's National Energy Technological Laboratory, the 11 newest coal-fired power plants are in Colorado, Louisiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Minnesota, Texas, Wisconsin and Wyoming.