Does wind power really provide more jobs than coal?

Earlier this week, Fortune's eco-blog, Green Wombat, ran a story under the headline, "Wind jobs outstrip the coal industry."

Jack Dempsey/AP/FILE
A wind turbine blade is unveiled during the opening of the Vestas blade factory in Windsor, Colo., Wednesday, March 5, 2008.

Earlier this week, Fortune's eco-blog, Green Wombat, ran a story under the headline, "Wind jobs outstrip the coal industry."

Blogger Todd Woody cites new report from the American Wind Energy Association that about 85,000 people are now employed by the wind power industry, up from 50,000 a year ago. Mr. Woody then says that "the coal industry employs about 81,000 workers," citing a 2007 report from the Department of Energy.

Woody calls this comparison "a talking point in the green jobs debate."

The story was republished on the Huffington Post, cited by Mother Jones magazine, and has been bouncing around the green blogosphere for the past few days.

But it's a bogus comparison. According to the wind energy report, those 85,000 jobs in wind power are as "varied as turbine component manufacturing, construction and installation of wind turbines, wind turbine operations and maintenance, legal and marketing services, and more."  The 81,000 coal jobs counted by the Department of Energy are only miners. Their figure excludes those who haul the coal around the country, as well as those who work in coal power plants.

To be fair,  Woody's lede does say that "[t]he wind industry now employs more people than coal mining in the United States." But his story then immediately abandons this distinction, and then goes on to characterize those 81,000 jobs as comprising the total employment of the coal industry.

So how many jobs does coal provide in the United States? I called up the National Coal Council, whose site will blast Aaron Copeland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" as soon as it loads, and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, the lobbying group behind most of those ubiquitous "clean coal" ads, to see if they could give me a ballpark figure. They haven't gotten back to me yet.

SourceWatch, a Wikipedia-like site run by the Center for Media and Democracy that monitors industry lobbying groups and PR firms, attempts to tally all those who mine coal, who haul it by rail, barge, and truck, and who operate and maintain coal-fired power plants. The writers estimate that "the coal industry directly provides an approximate total of 174,000 blue-collar, full-time, permanent jobs in the U.S."

But even comparing that to the number of wind power jobs is a bit spurious. If we're going to count those who build wind turbines, shouldn't we also count those who build the coal plants? The same should go for the lawyers and marketing people, too.

A,M1">1995 factbook by the Department of Energy cites 1994 study conducted for the National Coal Association, which said that  the coal industry's workforce, which at the time was said to be 136,000, was indirectly responsible for another 1.4 million jobs.

While it's encouraging that wind industry jobs grew by 70 percent last year, it's probably a good thing that, all else being equal, they don't currently employ more people than the coal industry does. After all, according to the US Department of Energy’s Renewable Energy Data Book [PDF], wind provides only about 2 percent of America's electricity. Coal provides half. If it really took that many people to provide so little wind energy, it would never become competitive with fossil fuels.

Update: It appears that the Green Wombat has corrected its story, although the misleading headline remains the same.

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