Energy-market digitization poses EU jobs threat in echo of coal retreat

21 June 2018 8:43am
Light bulb

8 May 2018. By Emily Waterfield.

With the shift from coal to clean power already leading to a slew of job losses in Europe, the energy industry now faces a new employment challenge. Companies including E.On and General Electric are confronting a need to redesign their business and move services online — risking the futures of workers without the skills to make the shift.

Only 2 percent of consumer data held by GE is analyzed to deliver services in Europe, a senior executive at the US multinational told a conference* in Brussels recently. To reduce how much power is wasted on the grid, companies such as GE must ramp up their use of automated digital services, Maher Chebbo said.

"How will we manage the social dimension of that transition? What are we going to do with all those people?"  Kristian Ruby, secretary general of industry group Eurelectric asked the conference. The problem echoes one already seen on the EU energy market as governments try to replace coal with cleaner power sources.

Burning coal emits almost twice as much carbon dioxide to produce the same amount of energy as burning natural gas, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Closing coal mines is a major strand of the EU's efforts to lower emissions and fight climate change.

The coal-mining industry in the EU had 177,000 direct employees in 2014, according to European Commission data, and hundreds of thousands more workers in service, supply and other industries are indirectly dependent on coal mines. Closing down Poland's mines alone would put half a million people out of work, industry group Euracoal says.

The shift away from coal by companies including ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and Total, in part to meet EU climate-change targets, has put thousands of miners out of work in countries including the UK, France and Romania. In Germany, workers have protested against government efforts to wean the country off coal.

The EU and the bloc's governments must move quickly if they hope to help workers avoid additional job losses through the "digitization" of the power industry.

A just transition

IBM's chief executive, Ginni Rometty, has said that even if only 10 percent of jobs are lost through increased use of artificial intelligence, 100 percent of the working world will change. "We have to prepare the world’s workers now," she said at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year.

Europe has so far struggled to translate a growth in renewable energy into jobs within the bloc. The International Renewable Energy Agency, a intergovernmental group, reports that worker numbers in the EU's renewable-energy industry have fallen every year since 2012, despite a worldwide jobs boom in clean energy.

Policy makers and think tanks are searching for a way to help workers from the fossil-fuel sector find new jobs. Widely known as a "just transition," the effort to ease societies away from coal has to allow for the fact that people who have spent years working in mines aren't likely to have the skills needed for clean-energy technologies.

Speaking to the same Brussels conference last week, US entrepreneur Peter Hinssen said similar problems could be seen across other industry sectors.

Amazon, for example, opened its first "checkout-free" grocery store in the US this year, with cameras, computer vision and robots used in place of human employees. And a trip around a traditional store owned by Amazon rival Walmart suggests that workers wouldn't easily switch from manual checkout roles to take advantage of job opportunities in digital technologies, Hinssen said.

“We have to redesign our existing business,” said Tighe Wall, E.On's head of digital strategy. Part of this new design will depend on employees, he told the conference: “We need to look for people who see things in a different way.”

Europe is running out of time to prove that European workers can see a different way to new jobs as the energy landscape goes digital.