Undergraduate research scholars help produce report on Ohio’s energy industries

Daniel Kington
December 15, 2017

Ohio’s energy sector, dominated by coal, oil and gas, solar and wind, directly employs more than 20,000 people – but the figures for each industry are ever changing due to the complex landscape of competition and policy. A report produced by the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs seeks to clarify the state’s energy sector and make projections for the future.

The report, titled “The State of the Energy Industry in Ohio: Job Trends and Projections,” was conceived and directed by Dr. Gilbert Michaud, a researcher and adjunct faculty at the Voinovich School. Two Voinovich Undergraduate Research Scholars, David Driver and Colton Smith, worked with Michaud and completed the bulk of the work on the project. Driver, a senior studying math, and Smith, a senior studying computer science, are both in their second year of the scholars program.

Despite some data limitations, such as the unavailability of employment figures for many rural areas, the report provides a portrait of Ohio’s energy sector job growth. The report projects that annual employment in the oil and gas and solar industries will grow by 7.9 percent and 13.2 percent respectively, while employment in coal and wind sectors declines by 12 percent and 13.1 percent respectively. By 2018, these projections put employment in Ohio’s oil and gas and solar industries at 17,621 and 6,326 respectively, and at 1,565 and 1,018 in the coal and wind industries, respectively.

These figures assume stability in policy, resources, consumer tastes and other factors, meaning current trends could easily change. However, Driver explained why the projections remain important.

“More so than many other industries, the energy industry is heavily impacted by contextual issues,” Driver said. “The current state of the industry has to do with the geography of the state, the political climate and energy’s status as both a product and a utility. This makes the overall picture very hazy and complicated. Our work figures out what this contextual information means for Ohio’s future, painting a picture that is not just about the GDP.”

When such information is taken into account, the jobs figures become much more nuanced. For example, although oil and gas employs more people than all the other industries combined, Michaud said the report’s projections suggest a brighter future for solar is on the horizon.

“Our region has been historically dependent on coal, and now the natural gas fracking boom is taking over – but it doesn’t mean that alternative sources of energy aren’t important,” Michaud said. “The oil and gas industry typically follows a boom-bust pattern, and our findings suggest that there will be an increased employment trajectory in the solar industry, which may be an emerging industry for displaced workers in Ohio’s fossil fuel industries.”

Michaud, Driver and Smith all said they hoped the report’s findings would influence policy discussion in Ohio to increase job growth.

“Ohio is stagnating the wind industry with its current policies, which has a very noticeable impact on wind jobs,” Smith said. “Most significantly, Ohio froze its renewable energy portfolio standards from 2014 until the beginning of this year, which, along with zoning regulations that are still in place, created a stagnation in wind and a setback in solar.”

Despite policy limits, solar is the fastest-growing industry included in the report. This is largely due to Ohio’s favorable net metering policies, which allows individuals to connect their solar panels to the electrical grid, selling excess energy to the grid and taking from the grid when needed. Although Ohio is looking at changing these policies, Michaud said he hopes the report will encourage lawmakers to reconsider such regulations.

“If Ohio continues to have favorable net metering policies, the solar industry will continue to move in a positive trajectory in terms of jobs,” Michaud said.

Both Smith and Driver, who collaborated closely throughout the project, said they generally enjoyed their work on the report and that the experience should help them toward their career goals.

“I plan to go to grad school to study machine learning, which is a very data-driven field, so the project certainly helped me in my professional ambitions,” Smith said.

“The focus of this project was using data to communicate, which is a helpful skill to have in general and is particularly relevant to the field of data analysis, in which I hope to work,” Driver said.

Driver said his applied learning experience working on the energy report was characteristic of his time at the Voinovich School, thus far.

“I like the work environment here,” Driver said. “Many times you work independently, but there are many people who are experts in your field, and you can always ask them questions if you need to. The Scholars program is a great hands-on opportunity.”