Geothermal heating and cooling plant located in Berea College’s new energy efficient dormitory – Photo by Nick Mullins
If you ask a coal miner about the “War on Coal,” chances are you’ll get an earful about the EPA, President Obama, and all the environmentalists who don’t care about coal miners and their families. You’ll probably hear about coal mining being all there is in an area where no job alternatives exist to make a living wage. All politics aside, one has to realize they are absolutely right. Coal is all there is in Appalachia unless you join the ranks of the working poor for a part time job at a grocery store, fast food joint, or the local Wal-Mart. I could explain the reasons things have come to be this way in Appalachia, citing a century’s worth of industry influence and political corruption, but there is no need at this point. The fact remains that coal is all there is at the moment, and coal employment will continue to decline despite any upticks in markets or deregulation of the industry.
There have been many solutions offered up to diversify coalfield economies. Technology jobs based on bringing in high bandwidth internet infrastructure, soliciting advanced manufacturing companies to set up in the region, and even attracting the renewable energy industry to take advantage of the vast tracts of land left by surface mining.
There are problems however. Technology jobs, especially in the form of call centers, are highly mobile and have a tendency to exploit local tax breaks and move their operations when tax breaks end. Advanced manufacturers have a lot to choose from when considering locations to set up facilities, including areas with larger populations and better access to transportation infrastructure. And sorry environmental organizations, thousands of jobs are needed, and the energy that could be produced from wind and solar will never equal the base load capacities of coal or natural gas, especially if people continue wasting energy. That last part is very important though, because addressing energy waste could be a powerful solution to Appalachia’s economic problem.
As many great thinkers have already said, energy efficiency needs to be the “first fuel” as we work towards energy alternatives.
Energy efficiency technology has come a long way. It would take tens of thousands of skilled trade workers decades upon decades to upgrade public buildings, businesses, and homes with energy efficiency technology. Not only would this create steady, well paying jobs—it would decrease our need for fossil fuels, thereby satisfying many environmental concerns while enhancing our national energy security. Coal miners could be trained and licensed in building trades specific to energy efficiency retrofits and given assistance in setting up employee owned companies.
The transition isn’t going to be easy, but it needs to begin now. Coal miners will need to lower and eliminate their debts and start putting money into savings. This is sage advice regardless. No matter the political and market climates, the coal industry will continue to shed excess labor overhead through mechanization, temp labor, and so on. It’s the way the coal industry has always operated.
Appalachian communities, as a whole, will also have to step up and do their part as well. The fact remains that political interests who have enjoyed the reign of king coal will not turn their backs on the industry that has helped them maintain their wealth and power. People will have to take back control of their local, state, and federal governments from extractive industries. New politicians will have to be voted in and constantly watched. People will have make sure federal funds are procured from taxing the richest of the rich, and are used appropriately to retrain coal miners, and subsidize the new employee owned ventures as well as the energy efficiency upgrades that will create jobs. After all, Appalachian people have sacrificed enough digging the coal that has made everyone’s life more convenient and has helped already wealthy corporations make ridiculous profits. I think it’s only fair.
There are several organizations who have started this kind of work, but their efforts are made difficult because of the lack of political will and people who still cling to the false promises of the coal industry. It’s time we move forward and this is one of many great ways we can.
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