Appalachia has supplied the United States with the much of the energy needed to become a manufacturing powerhouse that was the envy of the world. Its coal was essential to the steel mills that made the raw materials for the planes, ships, and trucks that won the Second World War. It also made the electricity that sent the post war economy into overdrive. For generations of people in Appalachia, renewable energy was a dirty word because it signified a turn away from coal power and a disruption in the way of life in the region.
Recently, The Guardian visited Wise County in western Virginia. Once an area where coal was king, it has seen its economy collapse as the number of jobs in the coal industry have shrunk. Its young people have been fleeing to more prosperous locations looking for a better life. The county’s population has declined 12% since 2010 and the poverty rate is about 21%.
Education Is The Key
When hardship strikes, there are two things people can do. They can nurse their grievances and spin them into political capital like JD Vance or they can identify future opportunities and form alliances to exploit them for the good of the community.
Appalachian Voices is a nonprofit that has decided to follow the second path. Over the past five years, it has been part of a consortium of nonprofits working with communities, unions, businesses, and local governments to help the region transition to a more environmentally and economically sustainable renewable energy economy.
It has taken time to change local and state laws, but even longer to change how people feel about coal. “The politics around clean energy are not as simplistic as Democrat or Republican,” Chelsea Barnes, the group’s legal director tells The Guardian. “It’s been difficult even proving that solar jobs can be good union jobs, like coal.”
The IRA Opens The Door To Renewable Energy Jobs
Secure Futures Solar is a Virginia company whose business is installing distributed solar systems for government agencies, hospitals, schools and commercial properties. Lately it has been advocating for local training programs that will teach people the techniques they will need to find work in the renewable energy industry.
So far in Wise County, 7 schools have signed 20-year power purchase agreements with Secure Futures for rooftop solar. “The IRA is going to help push this further, it’s so exciting,” said Matt McFadden, head of business development for the company and a Wise County resident. “Until two years ago, solar was a dirty word around here. Not any more. I feel optimistic about the region for the first time in a long time.”
Compared with grid-scale solar farms which create lots of work during the construction phase but few long term jobs, the distributed rooftop solar model is more sustainable environmentally because it does not require new land, and economically because it creates long term jobs because the systems are owned, operated, and maintained by the same companies.
But the workforce simply doesn’t exist yet. That’s what prompted McFadden to partner with vocational schools and community colleges to create the training programs needed for the renewable energy future.
“We have to reinvent ourselves in southwest Virginia, and if we want to attract new industries we have to provide a skilled workforce. We’re trying to train our young people to stay and be taxpayers. We’ve lost too many,” said William Austin, the principal of Wise County career technical center.
The Inflation Reduction Act has kicked the renewable energy job market wide open, says Kris Westover, president of nearby Mountain Empire community college. “Before it was like sending students to dead end careers, but now we’re ready and chomping at the bit to ramp up our courses to supply the alternative energy industry.”
William Austin is the principal of Wise County career technical center and a former coal miner. “We have to reinvent ourselves in southwest Virginia and if we want to attract new industries we have to provide a skilled workforce. We’re trying to train our young people to stay and be taxpayers. We’ve lost too many,” he tells The Guardian.
“It’s a game changer for rural and coal communities,” said Autumn Long, project manager for solar financing and manufacturing workforce development at Appalachian Voices. “Renewables are a way to honor the region’s energy producing legacy and be part of the 21st-century global energy transition. The IRA is a turning point.”
Keeping Communities Together
When Mason Taylor enrolled at the local vocational school with dreams of becoming an electrician like his father, it was assumed he would need to move away from Wise County to find a decent job. He has just finished a summer job as an apprentice at Secure Futures installing rooftop solar systems at public schools near his home. He and a dozen other trainees were paid $17 an hour, plus tools and a travel stipend, as part of the Virginia’s first solar energy youth apprenticeship program.
“Around here it’s always been coal, coal, coal, we didn’t hear much about green energy,” said Taylor, who comes from a long line of miners. “This is a great opportunity to learn, great pay, and maybe I’ll be able to stay here in the mountains with my family if solar takes off.”
The devastating floods that hit neighboring Kentucky this summer have been noticed by many in southwest Virginia. “The climate crisis is real. We have to do something about it,” Anthony Hamilton, another solar apprentice, told The Guardian.
Coal Country Can Become Renewable Energy Country
The coal region is in many ways ideally suited to become America’s renewable manufacturing hub, with existing plants and rail access that can be directed towards the transition, The Guardian reports.
Lawrence Brothers in Bluefield, Virginia, was started in 1974 to fabricate equipment for the mining industry. “Coal got us to where we are but it’s always been a boom and bust roller coaster and it’s not going to take us to the next level,” said Melanie Protti-Lawrence, 42. She is the granddaughter of the founder and the company’s current president. A “Friends Of Coal” sign hangs on the factory’s outside wall and several employees are former miners.
The company is just starting to get involved with the renewable energy sector by making prototype containers for lithium-ion batteries, which currently accounts for less than 7% of its business. Local businesses in the area have been able to take advantage of state and federal programs that help with marketing research and technical assistance to transition from serving the coal industry to making parts for electric vehicle charging stations and battery storage containers.
With the new opportunities made possible by the IRA, Protti-Lawrence is now dedicating half her time to developing renewable energy opportunities in hopes that it will represent 25% of the company’s revenue in three to five years.
“Central Appalachia has the manufacturing capacity, knowledge, experience and work ethic to serve the energy needs of the country and the world, it doesn’t have to be coal,” she says. “We’re going to embrace this wholeheartedly. I’ve so many ideas, it’s very exciting.”
It has been a long time since people in southwest Virginia have felt excited about their economic prospects. People like to focus on the dollars involved in federal programs like the Inflation Reduction Act, but never stop to consider the impact those dollars can have on people’s lives. How much is that worth? Some would say it’s priceless.
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