As the graphic illustrates, according to Department of Energy (DOE) data, in 2016, it took 160,119 coal workers to product 1.24 billion megawatt-hours of electricity, which is 7,745 megawatt-hours per coal worker. In contrast, it took 373,807 solar workers to produce only 36.75 million megawatt-hours of electricity, which equals 98 megawatt-hours per solar worker. Thus, the coal workers were 79 times more productive.
To repeat, Perry was arguing this reflected well on coal (and natural gas), vis-à-vis solar. Other things being equal, it’s the mark of progress that humans can create more and more output from a shrinking pool of workers. For example, that’s what happened in agriculture. In the two decades following World War II, American employment in agriculture and related fields dropped by half (from about 8 million to 4 million); this allowed Americans to continue eating plenty of food while workers were “freed up” to produce other goods and services.
Likewise, when it comes to energy, it is a sign of progress that humans can derive more electricity per year from a shrinking pool of workers; it allows us to consume more energy while freeing up workers for other projects.
Now, to be fair, some of Perry’s critics argued that his data—though faithfully taken from a DOE reports—were misleading since solar involves construction jobs rather than the long-run number of workers needed to keep previously built plants up and running.
However, on the other hand, there were other critics of Perry who thought they had a real zinger. On social media they began circulating Perry’s chart sarcastically thinking that it proved the superiority of solar versus coal and natural gas. (I don’t have an example handy, but this tweet makes the same general case,showing that I’m not attacking a straw man.)
Needless to say, these particular critics completely missed Perry’s point. To repeat, it’s better if a given worker can produce more output per year whether we’re talking about crops, electricity, or trucks. After all, if we want per capita living standards to go up, then it has to be the case that the amount of “stuff” produced per worker continues to rise.
Coal and Natural Gas versus Renewables
One of the big drivers of Perry’s calculations is the fact that coal and natural gas produce so much more output than solar. As IER’s Jordan McGillis pointed out back in April:
Despite green jobs making up more then half of the jobs in the electricity generation sector, wind and solar combined to generate a paltry 6.5 percent of our central station electricity in 2016, with wind producing 5.6. That means that despite accounting for 43 percent of the electricity generation workforce, solar energy produced less than one percent of our central station electricity….
What if other sectors of our economy looked this way?
What if McDonald’s employed 43 percent of all burger joint employees nationwide, but could only produce one percent of the burgers needed by a hungry public?
You’d rightly suspect something had gone very wrong in someone’s economic calculations. That’s the situation we’re in now with these touted green jobs. [Bold added.]
McGillis also anticipated the possible objection that wind and solar are just around the corner from producing huge amounts of electricity. Not so, according to EIA forecasts:
The EIA estimates solar will move from producing just less than one percent in 2016 to 1.4 percent of our central station (utility-scale) electricity in 2018. Coal, for comparison, is expected to climb as well (from 30.4 percent in 2016 to 31.1 percent in 2018) as natural gas prices rise.
If 2018 is too short of a time horizon to dash your hopes for solar productivity, consider EIA’s long-range projections. In its non-Clean Power Plan scenarios, even in year 2040—more than two decades from now—all of the sources EIA classifies as renewables (hydroelectric, biomass, wind, solar, etc.), which today combine to make up about 15 percent of our electricity, will still combine to produce only about a quarter of our electricity in 2040.
Solar energy will produce about six percent in 2040, wind will produce about nine percent., and natural gas and coal will supply around 34 percent and 28 percent respectively.