Appalachian Transition Initiative Leads Coalfields into New Year–and New Era

Jeff Biggers Jan 3, 2011

If not mountaintop removal or coal mining in central Appalachia, then what?

What can we do with displaced strip miners? How can we jump-start other New Power economies?

On the heels of a lead story in the Washington Post last weekend on the financial world’s burnout over the coal industry, Kristin Tracz, a Research & Policy Associate at the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED) in Kentucky, outlines the breakthrough efforts of the “Appalachian Transition Initiative” in a special Huffington Post interview on their work to deal with central Appalachia’s economic future in the face of a declining coal economy.

As an extraordinary effort between the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED) and the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC), Tracz says the Appalachian Transition group works to promote an “active, participatory and action-oriented conversation” about economic transition in Central Appalachia.

This type of conversation is hardly limited to the coalfields of Appalachia. One of the most dynamic clean energy advocates in the nation, Tracz draws parallels with other extraction-dependent economies and shows how similar clean energy initiatives are emerging across the nation.

JB: Can you describe the “Appalachian Transition Initiative” and your agenda for 2011?

KT: Our hope for 2011 is to give space to the important conversations that will move this long-term transition effort forward. We are in the process of revamping the website so that many more voices can share their stories in the form of blog posts, comments, and interactive discussions. While MACED and KFTC are in a sense hosting the initiative, it is by no means an effort exclusive to our organizations and we’re really interested in connecting folks working towards a vibrant, diverse Appalachian economy with others who have similar goals and efforts. We want to give space to people interested in learning about the issues outside the region with transition-oriented people living in Appalachian communities, helping to share information and resources in both directions.

Many organizations across the region are creating meaningful examples of local foods efforts, supporting small scale entrepreneurs, engaging in water shed clean up, promoting sustainable forestry management and other efforts. We want to share these and other stories. This kind of storytelling and information sharing that can help inform big picture decisions and policy changes that will be necessary to launch long-term investments in transition.

In our own work, MACED is focusing on opportunities in the region in the areas of energy, forestry and entrepreneurship. The Stewards of Appalachia project works with private forest landowners throughout the region to access new revenue options, while also promoting the sustainable management of forestland. The Energy Efficient Enterprises program provides technical assistance to small businesses and nonprofits throughout Appalachian Kentucky. Each of these efforts is supported by MACED’s Enterprise Development program, which provides loan products to viable businesses that may have trouble finding bank financing but are contributing to the employment and economic opportunities in the region.

KFTC is also pursuing a number of transition-related efforts. In December, KFTC and several ally organizations were successful in persuading a rural electric co-op to abandon its plans to build a coal-burning power plant and create a collaborative process to examine and recommend affordable clean energy solutions, including energy efficiency, wind, solar and hydro power. A study produced in 2009 by the Ochs Center demonstrated that a portfolio of these solutions could generate or save an equivalent amount of power to the power plant, at a lower overall cost, while creating more than 9,000 jobs in eastern and central Kentucky communities.

Meanwhile, MACED has worked with a handful of rural co-ops in the region to design an innovative way to help rural residents and small businesses finance renewable energy installations and energy efficiency upgrades. Taken together, these efforts to nudge and support rural co-ops towards new power solutions can be an important driver of regional economic transition and job creation.

These are long-term strategies that will, we hope, contribute to sustainable development in Appalachia. But first, we all have to work together to get the issues out there and heard–inside the coalfields, and out.

JB:How extensive is mountaintop removal mining in eastern KY, in terms of jobs and economic revenue? And how many jobs have been lost, due to mechanization, over the past 25 years?

KT: Mountaintop removal mining is a common form of surface mining in eastern Kentucky. According to EIA 2009 data, 239 mines in eastern Kentucky were surface mines out of 449 total mines in the state, accounting for about 35% of total coal mined in Kentucky. That includes methods other than mountaintop removal mining like contour mining–it is hard to get great data about MTR sites explicitly. The cumulative effects of this kind of mining are only beginning to be understood, in terms of impacts on Appalachian people and places in the form of drinking water, air quality, forest productivity, land use and ultimately what kinds of economic choices we have in the future. Across all kinds of mining techniques, the number of jobs directly employed by the coal industry in Kentucky is down significantly from a high of over 50,000 in 1979 to only roughly 17,000 in 2006. Mining makes up less than 1% of non-farm employment in Kentucky, though in a few coal counties it runs as high as 20%.

Mechanization has certainly played a big role in the decrease of jobs. Until the mid-1990s, coal production was high in the state even while jobs declined dramatically. In the last fifteen years or so, production has also started to decline as thinner seams of coal are mined out–leading to further job loss.

Surface mining accounts for nearly half of Central Appalachian coal, but only about 38% of mining jobs in the region. The revenue question is harder to answer in terms of plain numbers. MACED released a report on the economics of coal in Kentucky last summer–it has a lot of this information for folks looking for background and context, and can be found at

JB: What is New Power—solar, wind, geothermal?

KT: In Kentucky’s case, there’s a real need to focus on efficiency first. Historically low-cost electricity has allowed folks to largely ignore investments in efficiency in their homes, schools, offices and public buildings. But rates are rising quickly–43% on average over the last 5 years in Kentucky–and the cheapest energy is of course the energy you don’t produce.

After you’ve gone after all the efficiency savings you can, then looking at renewable technologies like wind, hydro, solar photovoltaics and solar hot water make a lot of sense. Kentucky has net-metering, which allows customers with a renewable energy system on their property to provide power back to the grid and offset personal consumption. In combination with state and federal tax credits, it can make good economic sense to install a system on a house or commercial property. It would make even more sense if we had the kind of regulatory framework that valued renewable energy and energy efficiency installations in Kentucky, like the renewable and efficiency portfolio standards passed in Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and just recently, Arkansas.

Research is being done across the state into what the feasibility of different technologies under different circumstances could be. The common theme seems to be so far that the further technology advances – in terms of hub heights for wind turbines, and efficiency of solar collectors – the better Kentucky looks for deploying renewable technologies. We probably won’t end up being the picture of massive wind farms like the Midwest or solar farms like the Mojave Desert, but there is a lot of potential for distributed generation in Kentucky. The next challenge will be to ensure we have the transmission capacity to handle it, but a policy commitment to distributed renewable generation would help speed up the research process for transmission improvements.

JB: Do you think any “just transition” to a non-MTR economy will require federal or state assistance, such as a GI Bill for coal miners for training and placement in other New Power industries?

KT: There’s no question that a just transition to a vibrant, diversified economy will require significant and sustained investment in the backbone of the region–its people. Appalachia has suffered from a history of underinvestment from all levels of government, and from the overdependence on a single industry for so long. To be able to undertake the generational, tectonic shift that will be required to move away from the current economic paradigm to a more diverse future, federal and state resources will need to be marshaled and concentrated on long-term opportunities in Appalachia. This is not something that has been done very well in the past – as Ron Eller details in his book Uneven Ground. But sustained support for job training, small business development, infrastructure improvements and access to quality education are essential to advancing a transition that benefits all Appalachians, and by extension all Americans.

Governor Granholm of Michigan recently talked about an Energy Jobs Race to the Top in a piece on HuffPost. That’s exactly the kind of thinking we need from leaders within Central Appalachia – we need an Appalachian Race to the Top. Even if we landed in the middle, it would be a vast improvement from where we rank now–which is the bottom of just about every socioeconomic indicator you can think of: child poverty, educational attainment, employment rates, labor participation, income, overall health.

A big part of the Appalachian Transition Initiative agenda is policies at the federal, regional and state levels that would provide a long-term plan for the region, invest in the entrepreneurship, housing, broadband internet access, and other needed infrastructure and and position the region to make forward progress. That will include support for miners transitioning out of coal, but it will also apply to the many folks throughout the region that are struggling with chronic unemployment or have given up looking for a job altogether.

JB: Have any venture investors or entrepreneurs made any attempts at New Power initiatives in KY?

KT: There certainly has been interest from a number of small businesses and entrepreneurs, in establishing business in the new power sectors, particularly solar electric and solar thermal businesses. Pioneers like Andy McDonald and the Kentucky Solar Partnership are really out there hitting the pavement to demonstrate the feasibility and viability of solar power in Kentucky. People like to say that Kentucky doesn’t get enough sun to support solar energy – and that’s just not the case! We have better solar resources than either New Jersey or Germany, and they are among the leaders nationally and internationally in solar energy.

There are entrepreneurs looking into wind projects as well, especially in eastern Kentucky on former mine sites. Genesis Development is one such company based in the region. No projects have been developed as of yet–better public support and understanding could really help get make headway for that industry.

What’s holding Kentucky back from grabbing hold of clean energy or new power initiatives, though, are policy limitations. Kentucky is one of a minority of states in the US that does not have a Renewable Portfolio Standard to incentivize the development of renewable energies and help bring costs down by scaling up applications of renewable technologies. We have seen neighboring states, including coal states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, reap the benefits of such policies. Ohio just announced the biggest solar installation east of the Rockies slated to create hundreds of long-term job, thanks to their RPS and the incentives it sets for business and project development in the state. Many of the installations that are brave enough to move forward in Kentucky are only able to do so because they can sell their renewable energy credits into the Ohio market. West Virginia has better energy policy in terms of support for renewables and net metering than we do! It really is a lost revenue stream and missing economic driver for the state right now, though groups like the Kentucky Sustainable Energy Alliance are working hard to pass the legislation that would fix this.

JB: Are there any communities or clusters of residents shifting toward New Power in eastern KY?

KT: A very committed group of community members in Benham and Lynch are working toward those goals. The towns are neighboring former coal camps–Benham’s motto is “the little town that International Harvester, coal miners and their families built!”–with a pretty interesting energy history. The city of Benham operates its own electric utility, which allows significant local control over energy purchasing decisions. Since the houses are largely similar former company housing, the city has the opportunity to develop an efficiency plan for the housing stock that would be pretty evenly applicable across the town. Local residents have motivation to look critically at new power options – Benham residents use some of the highest amounts of electricity per household of any community in Kentucky.
Involved community leaders like Roy Silver and Carl Shoupe (a former miner himself) have been instrumental in moving efficiency efforts forward in Benham, and working with organizations like MACED and KFTC to support development of renewable energy options, too.

For example, the City of Lynch is exploring ways to generate hydropower from Looney Creek, as well as to retrofit city-owned buildings with energy efficient lighting, heating and cooling systems. Efforts in both towns have also received assistance from a team from MIT’s Community Innovators Lab. There’s a lot of potential that these towns can serve as a model to other rural communities in Appalachia and outside the region to take transition into their hands and make progress happen. Local residents have just produced a gorgeous booklet describing their visions for the future of Benham and Lynch. Add to that the fact that both Benham and Lynch are located at the base of Black Mountain, the highest peak in Kentucky (with some of the best wind potential) and one of the most endangered places in Appalachia because of the threats posed by new mining projects, and you have a particularly compelling case.

JB: How could a MTR miner realistically be placed into reforestation programs, green jobs—such as energy efficiency programs–and clean energy manufacturing?

KT: The state has used Recovery Act money to develop programs – including training and certification under the Building Performance Institute – to assist Kentuckians looking to make career changes, as would be the case for a miner looking to transition to an efficiency related job. Classes are currently offered throughout the state’s community college system to provide training. Apprentice programs -including the electrical workers union and the laborers union–provide curriculum aimed at assisting Kentucky’s workers in acquiring the skills necessary to participate in these new employment opportunities. But at the moment, these efforts are not integrated into a career pathway and end up running the risk of being a dead end or short-term job instead of a long-term, quality career opportunity.

Efforts need to be made within the workforce investment system to link training opportunities with real jobs so that workers can see the benefits of gaining additional skills and qualifications. To be sure the demand for these jobs is there, though, requires a policy framework that clearly indicates the kinds of opportunities Kentucky wants for its citizens.

With a clearer signal from our political leaders that Kentucky means business, the opportunities for miners to transition to the clean energy economy could begin developing whether it is in the construction related field of energy efficiency upgrades to houses and buildings or the manufacturing of renewable energy component parts like turbines and panels. Kentucky certainly has a historically strong manufacturing base to build on, and deploying idled auto plants and other infrastructure to the production of clean energy technologies would be a big boost to the state’s economy. A challenge will be making deliberate efforts to develop new jobs that are specifically located in the coalfields. That is very important to us.

There have been several attempts to match training opportunities to employer demand, but these have not been long-term, integrated efforts implemented across the education and workforce systems. To really be successful, Kentucky needs to put in place policies that strengthen and make sustainable demand for workers in the renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors. MACED just released a report on exactly this topic called “Building Clean Energy Careers in Kentucky”–it’s definitely a big need, and something we, as a state, are going to have to keep working on to get right.

Jeff Biggers is the author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland.

This article was originally published on The Huffington Post.

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