As an Appalachian, I have thought a lot about coal, and one of my biggest concerns over the last eight years or so has been: when we do transition to renewable energy and away from fossil fuels, don’t we owe it to places like West Virginia and eastern Kentucky to create clean energy jobs there? Central Appalachia has been ravaged by coal extraction in many dimensions—public health, environmental damages, and economic losses. So in the future when we finally turn our backs on coal for good (or run out, whichever comes first), we will also be turning our backs on the people who live there.
People might ask, well can’t they just move to other parts of the country where the clean jobs will be? This assumes that these people have no culture, no connection to the land. And from the outside, this perception is understandable given the only media attention this region gets is from environmental disasters like coal ash spills or mountain top removal (above). But in reality, central Appalachia is one of our country’s most gorgeous regions.
Mention the New River Gorge (in WV) or the Red River Gorge (in KY) to any rock climber friend of yours east of the Mississip’ and they will tell you that these are meccas for rock climbing. This is not only because they offer challenging climbing routes but because they offer beautiful vistas, rock overhangs and hollows to explore, and cool mountain streams to wade in and look for crayfish. You wouldn’t ask a New Yorker to just move to another city, because no city is like New York City. You wouldn’t ask someone living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to just find another wooded coastline. My point is, the Appalachian culture runs deep and it is tied to the sleepy mountains and the cold mountain streams. You can hear it in their bluegrass, you can see it in their folk art, and you can taste it in their cornbread. In my opinion, we therefore owe it to this region to make investments in the clean energy economy in places like WV and eastern KY. Maybe it’s not the ideal spot for wind turbines or solar panels, but that doesn’t mean we can’t manufacture wind turbines or solar panels here. We can train Appalachians to lead the installation of our new smart grid. It appears that very smart, influential people have come to this same conclusion.
“I noticed KY and WV were not on your list of states in the American JOBS project—they are not swing states. But in this conversation of where will clean energy jobs be, are we morally compelled to bring clean energy jobs to places losing jobs from the end of fossil fuels, such as coal production in KY and WV? —Michigan State grad student”
I think it was my Michigan State signature that got the moderator’s attention, and he read the question to Governer Granholm. She said, “Oh where is that Spartan?! Where are they?!” And paused and looked out to the audience. I was seated way in the back of this giant ballroom and the audio-video platform in the middle of the room was obstructing her view to see me. So I stood up, holding my laptop in one hand and waving with the other. The audience chuckled and she saw me. She enthusiastically said yes, that local economies dependent on fossil fuels that have provided the fuel for the rest of us need to be incorporated into plans for our clean energy economy; that the project leaders hope to eventually develop policy recommendations for all 50 states. They wanted to start with the other ten swing states because they get a lot of media attention. The following panel discussion picked up on this overall theme as well. Adele Morris, of the Climate and Energy Economics Project at the Brookings Institution, said we need positive policies to help coal communities build a better future. She said she is actually starting a project on this that brings together education, early retirement, health care, ecological restoration into a positive agenda for Appalachia while also protecting the climate.
Speaking of coal, a tax on carbon came up a few times at the conference as an obvious first step toward expanding clean energy. The purpose of a carbon tax would be to make fossil fuels more costly relative to other economic decisions — to correct this failure of the market to price environmental damages. I was at first surprised to learn (but then it made sense) that it is not necessary to use carbon tax revenue to fund renewables because the carbon tax itself will already incentivize renewable development regardless. We could use this revenue stream in a way that builds support across party lines, including relieving the carbon tax burden on low income families.