Last week the coal lobbying group American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity held a press conference to announce a study of the employment and other economic benefits of building new coal plants with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.

The plan, developed by Denver-based BBC Research and Consulting, looks at the effects of building 38, 122, or 188 new coal plants, each with 90 percent CCS.

Since “jobs” and “stimulus” are the watchwords these days in Washington, ACCCE decided to emphasize the “6.9 million total job-years of labor” that would be created by building, fueling, and operating these new coal plants.

Well, maybe. But there’s a problem with the time frame. The “stimulus” jobs being trumpeted by the ACCCE would not begin to appear until around 2020, according to what the utility industry’s own research institute, EPRI, told Congress in May [PDF].

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

In short, this is vapor employment, jobs that won’t start to materialize for several presidential administrations down the road — maybe during the second term of Huckabee/Palin.

What’s depressing is that ACCCE actually talked leaders of four major unions into being its sock puppets at the press conference. One was Abraham Breeley of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, who said, “This study demonstrates that [coal with carbon capture and storage] has the potential to create literally millions of jobs for workers across the country, in every region — and I think it’s very important to point out that these are jobs that can sustain families.”

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Message to Breeley and comrades: Stop hanging out with the coal boys. Instead, go down the street to the American Wind Power Association, which just reported that 83,000 people were building and operating wind farms in 2008. Or check out the Solar Energy Industries Association, which just reported that the newly signed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will create 110,000 jobs in the solar industry in the next two years.

Compare those 193,000 solar and wind power jobs to the 174,000 jobs currently provided by coal mining (83,000) + coal transportation (31,000) + coal-fired power generation (60,000).

Not only is combined solar/wind employment beginning to move past total coal-related employment, but the gap is expected to widen.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, the number of O&M jobs in the typical 300 MW coal plant dropped from about 75 in 1981 to about 50 in 1997. In coal mining, the decline is even steeper. Productivity per miner is expected to increase by a third between now and 2025, which means that overall employment will decline unless the volume of coal produces grows at a faster rate, an unlikely possibility given Eastern production declines and limitations on Western mines.

(To be cynical, it should be pointed out that coal’s “externalities” do produce a lot of indirect employment in one growing sector: health care. According to the 2004 study “Dirty Air, Dirty Power,” [PDF] particulates from power generation result annually in 26,000 emergency room visits for asthma, 38,200 heart attacks, 16,200 cases of chronic bronchitis, and 23,600 fatalities. Among the fatalities, the average reduction in life span was 14 years. That’s a lot of work for nurses, doctors, EMTs, ambulance drivers, health insurance employees, and morticians.)

Coal backers like to think of themselves as hard-headed realists. Yet anyone who reads the energy trades these days will see that the predicted boom in coal has largely fizzled, and instead we’re seeing a very real boom in wind power, with a boom in solar power coming close behind. Fact: In the past 17 years, net coal capacity in the United States has increased by a mere 7,617 MW. But in 2008 alone, wind power capacity increased by 8,300 MW.

Another flaw in the newly released ACCCE study is its optimistic projections of the cost of coal plants equipped with CCS. The study placed those costs at $3,972 per kW for a supercritical coal plant with CCS, and at $3,906 per kW for an IGCC coal plant with CCS.

Both of those numbers are unrealistically low. According to two studies released in 2008, one for the California Energy Commission and Public Utilities Commission, the other for the Lazard investment banking company, the projected capital costs for an IGCC plant with CCS are $5,050 per kW (Lazard) or $5,127 per kW (California).

Even now, some coal plants that don’t have CCS are pushing past $3,500 per kW. According to an inventory of capital costs conducted by EPRI [PDF], Duke Energy’s Edwardsport plant will cost $3,730 per kW, and AEP’s Mountaineer plant will cost $3,545 per kW.

Because it uses artificially optimistic estimates for capital costs, the ACCCE study results in outlandishly high estimates of the bang (numbers of jobs) that can be expected for the coal investment buck.

In fact, studies consistently show that wind and solar power both create more jobs than coal. For example, a study [PDF] by Virinder Singh of BBC Research (the same firm that performed the jobs study for ACCCE) and Jeffrey Fehrs found that $1 million invested in coal would produce 3.96 job-years of employment, compared to 5.70 job-years if invested in wind power and 5.65 job-years if invested in photovoltaics.

According to Green for All, a partial list of fields with the potential to grow from solar, wind, and efficiency investments includes electricians, truck drivers, welders, machinists, roofers, accountants, cashiers, software engineers, civil engineers, energy efficient construction, and energy audit specialists.

The message is, if you want to stimulate the economy, invest in jobs that are available now, not in 2020. That means greasing the skids for wind power, solar, and energy conservation, not carbon capture and storage.

On the other hand, if you think carbon capture and storage is important, go ahead and make the case. But please don’t use jobs as the basis for the argument.