A family clinic in Williamson, West Virginia has just put a new 11-kilowatt solar installation on its roof, and the relatively tiny project could be the harbinger of a big shakeup in coal country. New green jobs in solar energy and other renewable energy fields are starting to trickle into West Virginia and other parts of Appalachia, and that could have a ripple effect on the local tolerance – or lack of it – for destructive coal mining practices. How? Just follow the money…
Coal Mining Employment in Appalachia
Williamson, which calls itself the “Heart of the Billion Dollar Coalfield,” is in Appalachian coal country. Coal mining employment in the region peaked at 130,00 in the 1940’s, and it has dropped steadily down to less than 22,000. The reason for the decline is partly due to the industry’s shift to an especially destructive, highly mechanized mining method called mountaintop coal removal. In terms of total population, the number of households in Appalachia earning income directly from mining is down to a small fraction, which leaves a giant opening for a new constituency in green jobs. Workers in the green employment sector will have their own priorities, which will probably not include support for companies that chew up the local environment and undermine public health in order to export American coal overseas.
A New Push for Green Jobs for Appalachia
The Williamson solar project represents more than just one private building owner installing a few kilowatts of solar energy. It was a centerpiece for Williamson’s four-day “Solar Week” of workshops and on-the-job training, hosted by a West Virginia renewable energy installer, Mountain View Solar and Wind and a nonprofit sustainable employment organization called The Jobs Project. In a press release, Mountain View co-president Mike McKechnie noted that local residents formerly employed as electricians in the mining industry were ideal candidates for solar energy employment (and the panels, by the way, were made in the U.S. by a unit of the global firm SolarWorld).
Federal Support for an Appalachian Revival
President Obama’s forthcoming budget still contains significant support for fossil fuels, but his administration is clearly focused on transitioning public energy subsidies into new technology. As noted by coal industry reporter Ken Ward, last year the Department of Labor provided a $6 million grant to support green jobs for veterans and laid-off workers in West Virginia. Ward also caught Obama’s budget proposal from 2009 that would send more federal dollars to Appalachia for abandoned mine reclamation. These funds would help support a new EPA program that is reclaiming abandoned industrial sites for alternative energy and new green jobs. Despite all the kicking and screaming from the coal industry, it won’t be long before that trickle of green jobs into Appalachia turns into a flood.
Image: West Virginia state flower by forestgladesiwander on flickr.com.