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The Last Embers of Coal: Appalachia’s Green Path Forward

Coal mining jobs have been on a staggering decline for the past 40 years. An industry once integral to the livelihoods of Appalachian residents, coal mining has long passed its golden age, leaving behind chronically ill and impoverished communities. Now, the Covid-19 pandemic has unleashed a whole slew of mine closures. What few coal mining jobs are left might not be around for much longer. Cheaper gas and oil, as well as renewable energy sources, are far more economically viable power derivatives. So, what is next for the families of laid-off miners? Follow the money. What is needed is a massive pivot away from coal once and for all, and toward clean energy jobs in Appalachia. While COVID-19 has crippled the already dying coal industry, it may also play a positive role in catalysing the long overdue economic overhaul to green technology.

US coal production for the second quarter of 2020 exhibited a 35.9 percent reduction from 2019. Covid-19’s impact is not yet fully clear, but mine closures for health-related concerns and a significant drop in demand for such a relatively expensive power source account for most of the production tumble. One in five Central Appalachian coal miners exhibit evidence of having black lung disease, according to the CDC. This chronic illness, caused by years in the mines, makes former and current miners particularly at risk for serious respiratory illness from Covid-19. Although the heightened Covid-19 risk might justify halting operations, the economic impact of further mine closures could be devastating. Between 2019 and now, coal jobs in Appalachia have dropped by 25 percent, from more than 16,000 to hovering just above 12,500 jobs. These numbers pale in comparison to the employment of nearly 40,000 Central Appalachian coal miners in 2011. While Donald Trump’s promises to “bring coal back” might have caused a slight uptick in coal mining jobs in 2016, there are far fewer coal jobs now than in 2016. Dropping out of the Paris Climate Accord seems not to have had quite the rejuvenating effect on the industry that the president promised it would. Try as lobbyists and pandering politicians might, the reality is this: coal is no longer a viable career or professional option.

Interestingly enough, coal’s demise comes at a time when renewable energy has never been hotter. In early April of 2020, New York’s Rhodium Group found that, for the first time in history, wind and solar energy production outperformed coal during a three-day period. Since 2008, US generation of renewable energy has doubled, with most growth occurring in the wind and solar sectors. Perhaps even more compelling, then, is that while industries across the board experienced devastating productive contractions during the Covid-19 crisis, wind and solar actually saw a global increase in production. Through such a severe trial, the renewable sector has demonstrated clear resiliency. This strength will likely translate to the market stability of renewable energy for individual and collective investment. Comparatively, the coal market will only demonstrate worse prospects and returns as time progresses.

How does the success of solar and wind farms elsewhere relate to the economic situation of Appalachia? The Appalachian landscape actually offers the perfect framework for investment in green energy infrastructure. Not only is the land cheap, but the potential for wind energy production is among the highest in the Eastern United States. Additionally, the mountains the coal industry destroyed by mountaintop removal mining actually pose a great opportunity for solar farm construction. One such project is underway with EDF Renewable Energy in Eastern Kentucky, potentially bringing millions of dollars and jobs to the area. The same project has explicitly given indication that it will give preferential hiring treatment to out-of-work miners and has mostly seen positive reactions from nearby residents.

Already, the solar industry employs nearly double the coal industry nationwide. Investment in clean energy in Appalachia would bring plentiful jobs in infrastructure construction, operations maintenance, and systems design. Many of these jobs would not even require beyond a high school diploma, making them accessible to the former miners. While mining jobs offered high pay due to the dangerous conditions, they simply do not exist any longer. According to the Brookings Institution, clean energy jobs pay better than the national average and require lower educational attainment. Not only does this accessibility indicate expanded opportunity for employment for Appalachians, but also mitigates the risk of underemployment and low wages.

However, politics and Big Coal currently stand in the way of such a mutually beneficial transformation of the economic landscape. What is clearly needed is a massive clean energy infrastructure investment that market forces have not met. Even when private companies try to conduct large scale renewable construction projects in Appalachia, coal companies, deeply entrenched in the political landscape, stand in the way. Plans for a solar farm on Bent Mountain took years of litigation to move forward in a legal battle against Kentucky Fuel, owned by West Virginia Governor Jim Justice. Much of the land with solar and wind utility is also owned by coal companies or their beneficiaries. Simply refusing to sell might also throw a wrench into the whole ordeal. At the federal level, about one in four members of Congress have investments in fossil fuels. West Virginia’s own (Democrat) Senator Joe Manchin has the most in the Senate, with between one to five million dollars in Enersystems, his family coal business. Clearly, the roots of Big Coal power run deep and broad within Appalachia and US power structures. It will take incredible political and economic clout and might to push forward an energy sourcing and jobs metamorphosis.

Such strength and pressure could come from the federal government. However, only 42 percent of respondents to a 2020 study by Pew Research Center claim climate change as a “very important” issue when it comes to their vote in the upcoming presidential election. The government is unlikely to support such a policy that is unpopular among the public. In contrast, 79 percent of respondents to this same survey consider the economy to be a “very important issue.” Perhaps, then, it is time to reframe the debate over green energy around the economy, highlighting job growth and investment opportunities. Since existentialism and the threat of global climate catastrophe have proven not enough to stir the masses, campaigning green infrastructure development on its economic stimulus benefit would feed two birds with one scone.

Moving forward from the Covid-19 pandemic and its subsequent economic downturn will require government stimulus of a grand scale. With economic stimuli comes the unique opportunity of the governing body to influence the economy with specificity and intention. A progressive-thinking legislature should incorporate never-before-seen investment into the clean energy sector, particularly in Appalachia. A Biden win and Democratic Senate seizure this November could very well see such a powerful and advantageous move. A Trump win? Well, Appalachia can then expect another four years of “bringing coal back.”

Photo: Image via Flickr (Oregon Department of Agriculture)