Scientist Jeremy Richardson lives in two worlds. Based in Washington, D.C., he specializes in energy policy and works to fight climate change. At the same time, he is the son, brother and grandson of West Virginia coal miners and his roots go deep into coal country.
He knows that coal mining is not just a job but a way of life, something those who want to help coal workers adapt to a post-coal future must understand.
“It’s cultural as well as economic,” says Richardson, who grew up in Barrackville, a small town in north-central West Virginia, and who now works for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “These families have been keeping the lights on in this country for the last century. It’s a large part of who they are, and I’m very proud of my family’s heritage.”
Respecting that strong cultural identity is central to helping coal workers and their communities reinvent themselves in the wake of the industry’s decline — a downturn that began long before the political debate over climate change.
To be sure, job losses have accelerated in recent years as coal struggles to compete with natural gas and renewable energy. But the coal industry’s problems began decades ago and are not likely to reverse themselves anytime soon, even if the incoming Trump administration tries to revive fossil fuels by undoing President Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
“The real work is about building a new economy.”
“This is a region of deep economic distress, and has been for more than 50 years. We started losing jobs when mechanization entered the mines, and what has been happening in recent years sits on top of decades of economic decline and distress,” said Peter Hille, president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED), a Kentucky organization working to foster economic development in the state.
Even if the industry regained all the jobs lost in recent years, Hille explained, “the whole region still would be economically distressed. The real work is about building a new economy.”
Federal emissions restrictions “became a handy scapegoat for the writing already on the wall,” said Rev. Zachary Drennen, executive director of Strong Mountain Communities, which is working to improve economic diversity in southern West Virginia. Changing federal policies “will not bring back the jobs because the demand for coal remains low, and many of the coal-fired plants that shut down were scheduled to be shuttered anyway, because of their obsolescence.”
Grassroots organizations in coal states have been reaching out to people in coal communities — and seeking financial support from local, state and federal governments — with initiatives to help ease the difficult transition. Piece by piece, they have begun investing in those areas and gradually introducing alternatives.
It’s a process that takes patience, Richardson says, recalling how Toyota proposed building a plant in one West Virginia county in the early 2000s and encountered resistance from residents due to the high population of World War II veterans. “Eight years later, when it opened, there was a big parade with American and Japanese flags — because there were 1,100 new jobs, and people finally saw the opportunities,” he said.
“It’s not enough to just say ‘now we’re going to teach you to do something else.’ You change hearts and minds by demonstrating that something else is possible, and that there are other ways to earn a living that don’t harm the planet,” Richardson added. “You start by understanding the culture of coal, and by having conversations at the community level.”
“We can’t leave these people or these communities behind.”
Local organizations in coal states have begun training former coal workers and their young adult children — who, during an earlier time, likely would have followed their fathers into the mines — to install solar systems, perform energy audits and retrofitting, even write computer code. They are also helping them get credit and financing so they can start their own small businesses.
“We’re trying to give them an opportunity to reimagine not just their own careers, but their entire communities,” said Dan Conant, founder of Solar Holler, West Virginia’s first solar job training program. “We can’t leave these people or these communities behind.”
Many of these programs are training only a handful of people at a time, but officials plan to expand them in the coming years. “We are just on the cusp of seeing these new opportunities arise,” Richardson said.
Solar Holler, for example, trains young adults from coal families in four West Virginia counties — Wayne, Lincoln, Mingo and Cabell — to install solar panels. Each trainee serves as an apprentice with an installation crew for two years while earning an associates’ degree and solar certification. Today, four certified Solar Holler employees work full-time for the company. The first group to earn certification, they now are studying engineering at Marshall University in Huntington.
The company sponsors several financing programs to help local businesses, churches, nonprofits and families afford solar systems. It’s part of the effort to make solar energy more attractive to the region.
“This is a lot more than just retraining coal people,” Conant said. “We have to build up solar industry demand in the state — and the entire solar industry — from scratch.”
Drennen, meanwhile, who describes himself as a “deal maker,” connects miners with finance officers and developers, easing some of the obstacles to starting their own businesses. “We help them find funding they need, and we’re getting people who don’t normally talk to each other to talk to each other,” he said. “It’s an uphill battle sometimes, but we are undaunted by that. We just charge into these hollers and work with them to get them off the ground.”
Drennen met recently with a couple who live about five miles from the Hatfield-McCoy trail system, more than 700 miles of ATV-riding paths in the mountains of southern West Virginia. The couple wants to build several small cabins to accommodate out of state visitors who don’t want to sleep in tents. The man is a miner, and still has a job, but “he and his wife thought it would be a good idea to expand their economic base,” he said.
Drennen introduced them to his contacts at the National Capital Investment Fund, which finances people in rural areas who want to build locally-owned enterprises. “They were able to get a low-interest loan with very amenable repayment plans that take into account the fluctuating revenue structure of a seasonal business,” Drennen says. “He knows he is fortunate to still have a coal mining job, but if this takes off, it might end up replacing his coal mining job after a few years.”
“There is a huge need for investment in a region of the country that has been historically under-invested.”
In Eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia, MACED has been working to improve economic conditions since its founding in 1976, concentrating largely on energy, sustainable forestry and homegrown entrepreneurship. Among other things, the organization provides loans and technical assistance to support small businesses and nonprofits.
Earlier this year, MACED received $2 million from the Appalachian Regional Commission, an economic development agency created by Congress in 1965. Among other things, the grant will fund a new initiative to train displaced coal industry workers to perform energy audits and energy efficiency retrofits. Initially, a dozen former coal workers will go through the two-year program.
These “interns” will work within MACED’s existing energy audit and retrofitting programs. Once trained, “we will then help them with technical assistance and financing so they can set themselves up as independent contractors,” Hille said.
“The work we do helps businesses survive in this disastrous economic turndown,” he added. MACED will finance an energy retrofit, for example, with repayment based on a business’s future utility savings. “We can take risks that a bank can’t,” Hille said.
In doing so, MACED provides jobs for its energy auditors and contractors, and keeps the businesses going. Similarly, the residential energy program “impacts people and families in households,” Hille said. Taken together, “it helps keep these communities alive.”
Richardson describes the work of these programs as “inspiring,” and says he hopes they will find enough support to keep growing. “There is a huge need for investment in a region of the country that has been historically under-invested,” he said. “I think, finally, we are starting to see that now.”
Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.