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‘This is the future’: rural Virginia pivots from coal to green jobs

Green energy is growing in the state of Virginia.

According to The Guardian:

When Mason Taylor enrolled at the local vocational school with dreams of becoming an electrician like his dad, it was assumed that the ninth-grader would eventually end up moving away from Wise county, Virginia, to find a decent job.

Now 19, Taylor just bought a truck after a summer apprenticing with a crew of electricians installing rooftop solar systems at public schools in the county. He was among a dozen or so rookies paid $17 an hour, plus tools and a travel stipend, as part of the state’s first solar energy youth apprenticeship scheme.

“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.”

In the past decade or so, unemployment and poverty have forced many to leave south-west Virginia as the coal industry’s decline ricocheted across central Appalachia. It’s torn many families apart and any talk of renewable energy was considered anti-coal, but attitudes are starting to change.

“We have to get away from fossil fuels that are killing our planet. Technology has come a long way and will keep getting better. This is the future,” said chief electrician Jimmy Rogers, 49, whose family worked on the coal trains in Tennessee.

The region’s long-awaited energy and economic transition will be substantially boosted by America’s first climate legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).

It’s far from a panacea, but Joe Biden’s legislation provides $369bn for the transition to electric vehicles and renewable energy – a historic investment that scientists estimate will reduce greenhouse gases by 40% below 2005 levels by 2030 and ​​create an estimated 1.5m new jobs.

Decent well-paid jobs are desperately needed. In Virginia, coal production has declined by 70% since its peak in 1990, and much of what’s left is semi-automated. Those old jobs are largely gone and are not coming back.

The IRA provides ring-fenced money for training, innovation and manufacturing, as well as an array of tax breaks and other financial incentives to help consumers and businesses transition away from fossil fuels. And Joe Manchin, the conservative Democrat senator from West Virginia played a pivotal role in watering down – and then reviving – the legislation, directing billions of dollars to the economic revival of depressed coal towns.

“It’s a game changer for rural and coal communities,” said Autumn Long, a project manager for solar financing and manufacturing workforce development at the non-profit Appalachian Voices. “Renewables are a way to honour the region’s energy-producing legacy and be part of the 21st-century global energy transition. The IRA is a turning point.”

Wise county is a picturesque Appalachian community bordering eastern Kentucky where for decades coal dominated the economy – and almost every aspect of life. It’s home to the self-proclaimed cleanest coal plant in America, a sprawling polluting and economically unviable mountain ridge plant currently scheduled to keep operating until 2045.

The population has declined by 12% since 2010 to just over 35,000. Fancy houses built with coal wealth are scattered across the mountain ridges, but the poverty rate stands at about 21%, more than 50% higher than the national average, and the county’s schools qualify for universal free school meals.

Over the past five years or so Appalachian Voices has been among a consortium of non-profits working with communities, unions, businesses and local governments to help the region transition to a more environmentally and economically sustainable renewable energy economy.

It’s taken time to help change local and state laws, but even longer to shift attitudes and the deep connection people feel to coal. “The politics around clean energy are not as simplistic as Democrat or Republican,” said Chelsea Barnes, the group’s legal director. “It’s been difficult even proving that solar jobs can be good union jobs, like coal.”

But the work has paid off, and central Appalachia is in a good place to take advantage of the IRA provisions and historic investments.

The youth apprenticeship scheme is the brainchild of entrepreneurs at Secure Futures and Got Electric – Virginia-based companies installing distributed solar systems for government agencies, hospitals, schools and commercial properties.

Solar is relatively new here as it was only in 2020 that the state allowed public entities and non-profits to access power purchase agreements (PPA) – a third-party financing system which essentially means the solar company pays for upfront costs. Offset schemes like net metering can also lead to substantial savings as excess electricity goes back into the grid and is banked like rollover minutes.

So far in Wise county, seven schools have signed 20-year contracts with Secure Futures for rooftop solar.

“The IRA is going to help push this further, it’s so exciting,” said Matt McFadden, the company’s business development lead and a Wise county local. “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.”

The IRA doesn’t solve the hotchpotch access to PPA and net metering, which still depends on state laws and utility regulations, but it does expand access to tax credits which will make installation 30% cheaper for most, apart from the lowest-income households.

Compared with industrial solar farms – which create lots of work during the construction phase but few long-term jobs, the distributed rooftop model is more sustainable: environmentally – because it does not require new land, and economically – because it creates long-term jobs as the systems are owned, operated and maintained by the same companies.

But the workforce simply doesn’t exist yet – which is what prompted McFadden to partner with vocational schools and community colleges, that have for years been pivoting away from coal jobs.

“We have to reinvent ourselves in south-west 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, which also offers ninth, 10th and 11th graders vocational training in welding, plumbing, cybersecurity and nursing.

In these parts, almost every family is connected to the coal industry in some way, and most have relatives who have left for work, and others struggling with health problems like opioid addiction. Austin is a former miner, his son an attorney representing black lung patients, and his wife is a respiratory therapist. It’s not uncommon in the county to see black lung patients walking gingerly with an oxygen tank.

The attitude shift is not just economics, the climate crisis has also hit this region. Some students travel to the school from Jenkins, Kentucky, where devastating floods in July left roads and bridges unpassable. “The climate crisis is real, we have to do something about it,” said Anthony Hamilton, 18, another solar apprentice.

Hamilton and Taylor will continue as apprentices while moving on to Mountain Empire community college, situated about 20 miles south-west. The remit of the higher ed college is to prepare students for jobs in the region, and recent state and federal legislation has kicked the renewables job market wide open, according to the college president, Kris Westover.

“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,” said Westover.

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.

It will take time for the US to wrestle solar panel and lithium battery production from China, but the IRA includes a range of measures to incentivise innovation and manufacturing.

In Bluefield, Virginia, family-run manufacturers have been getting help with market research and technical assistance to transition from serving the coal industry to making parts for electric vehicle charging stations and battery storage containers.

“Coal got us to where we are … but it’s always been a boom-and-bust rollercoaster and it’s not going to take us to the next level,” said Melanie Protti-Lawrence, 42, president of Lawrence Brothers – a company started by her grandfather in 1974 to make steel containers to house batteries operated underground.

A “friends of coal” sign hangs on the plant’s external wall, and several of the employees are former miners. But the coal industry accounted for less than 5% of their business in 2021, compared with 60% in 2018 and 98% in 2008.

The company is just starting to dip its toe into the alternative energy sector, making prototype containers for next generation (Nexus) lithium-ion hybrid batteries, which currently accounts for less than 7% of their business.

Coal mining continues for now, but with financial help on the horizon through the IRA, Protti-Lawrence is dedicating half her time to developing renewable energy opportunities in hopes that it will represent 25% of 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. We’re going to embrace this wholeheartedly. I’ve so many ideas, it’s very exciting.”

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