Does the wind industry really employ more workers than coal?

Wind power is growing like gangbusters, but still only accounts for 1 percent of electricity generated in the U.S. So how do the numbers add up?

Published January 30, 2009 8:16PM (EST)

Green Wombat's Todd Woody, citing a release from the American Wind Energy Association, provides a new "talking point": "The wind industry now employs more people than coal mining in the United States."

Strictly speaking, this is true. Until the collapse of the economy in mid-September the wind industry had been growing at a tremendous rate, and currently, according to the AWEA, boasts a total employment of 85,000. The latest figures from the Department of Labor peg coal mining employment at 81,000.

But as a few of Woody's readers were quick to point out, wind energy still only provides a smidgen over 1 percent of the electricity generated in the United States, while coal accounts for about half. So if you counted everyone employed in actually generating electricity from coal, the wind industry's showing would be a little less robust.

Some critics even suggested that if you're going to count the employees of companies that make wind turbines, you should also tote up all the employees of the companies that make the equipment to mine coal as well -- Caterpillar bulldozers and the like. And then there are the miners that mine the ore that is smelted into the metal used to manufacture the mining equipment.

And so on. One can draw the line at any number of arbitrary points -- but directly comparing the wind industry with coal mining alone does come off as stacking the deck in favor of renewables.

The key takeaway shouldn't be employment, but growth rates. The U.S. registered a 50 percent increase in installed wind power capacity in 2008 and the wind industry accounted for 42 percent of all new electricity generation. The recession will take its toll on those numbers in 2009, but with a Democratic Congress including renewable energy incentives in the stimulus package, future momentum is all but assured.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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