How Clean Energy Can Revive Coal Country

If President Trump wants to earn a rare legislative victory, and take political credit for reviving hard-hit regions of rural America, he should take a close look at how one Kentucky coal company is creating jobs.

Berkeley Energy Group this month announced plans to put coal miners back to work by building the largest solar project in Appalachia on top of a closed mountaintop strip mine near the town of Pikeville. The Eastern Kentucky coal company is partnering with the Environmental Defense Fund, which has helped develop 9,000 megawatts of renewable energy, to bring jobs and clean energy to the region.

Mining employment in the area has plummeted from more than 14,000 jobs in 2008 to fewer than 4,000 today, owing to mine automation, competition from natural gas, and controls on dirty coal emissions.

Even if Trump’s administration and Congress roll back clean air and water rules, most experts agree that coal mining jobs are not coming back, particularly in Appalachia where production costs are relatively high.

But there is vast potential for the region to reclaim its ravaged landscapes for use in generating solar energy, if federal policy continues to offer incentives.

Reimagining coal country

Writing last year in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, West Virginia solar entrepreneur Dan Conant wrote, “Our people have given sweat, blood, tears and lives to help build and power America. Reimagining ourselves not as a coal state, but as an energy state—including solar and wind—is critical if we are going to continue powering America. All we need is imagination (and a little encouragement and support) as millennial West Virginians lead the way into the future.”

Such visions are still a tough sell in many conservative communities, but many “red” states, whose politicians deny the threat of global climate disruption, are learning to appreciate solar energy. North Carolina, Arizona, Utah, Georgia, and Texas rank among the top 10 states for solar electric capacity. Together, their photovoltaic cells power more than a million homes.

In Florida, the state’s largest utility just announced plans to add nearly 2,100 megawatts of new solar capacity over the next seven years while shutting down dirty and expensive coal plants. By 2023, it expects to generate four times more energy from solar than from coal and oil combined.

At the same time, the solar industry is sending out more and more paychecks across rural America. Nationally, the solar industry added 51,000 jobs last year and now employs over a quarter million people, more than three times as many as the coal industry. Solar jobs are attractive, paying a median wage of $26 an hour for installers.

Where the wind comes sweeping down the plains

Wind energy is another big job engine that appeals to pragmatic conservatives who care more about the economy than the environment. More than three-quarters of Republican congressional districts have operational wind energy projects or active wind-related manufacturing facilities.

Texas, Iowa, and Oklahoma are the three top states for installed wind generation capacity, beating out former industry leader California. In Texas, the wind industry employs more than 22,000 people and pays more than $60 million a year to ranchers, farmers, and other lease holders.

Many other red states, like Montana, Nebraska, and Wyoming, have immense untapped potential for low-cost wind generation. Power Company of Wyoming is building the largest wind project in the country, with a capacity of up to 3,000 megawatts.

Nationwide, employment in the wind industry topped 100,000 for the first time last year. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the fastest growing occupation in the country is wind turbine technician, with a median wage of $51,000 a year.

Wind now supplies 5.5 percent of all electricity in the United States. It’s now one of the lowest cost sources of electricity, even without federal subsidies, according to newly released estimates by the Department of Energy. A typical wind project in Montana supplies electricity at 4.7 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to 6.8 cents from coal-fired generation.

And contrary to Trump’s complaint that solar is “so expensive,” energy from the sun is now cheaper than new coal or nuclear power. As a result, nearly two-thirds of new U.S. generation capacity in each of the last two years used renewable technologies.

A clean jobs program for Trump

Trump can exploit these powerful trends to reap big political gains by promoting clean jobs along with clean energy in rural and rust-belt America.

Rather than eliminating funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission, for example, Trump could steer more of its resources into clean energy training and investment programs. A study published last year by scholars at Michigan Technological University and Oregon State University showed that “a relatively minor investment ($180 million to $1.8 billion, based on best and worst case scenarios) in retraining would allow the vast majority of U.S. coal workers to switch to solar-related positions.”

Trump could also ramp up funding for the Solar Training Network, established last year by The Solar Foundation with White House support to “improve access to solar training, resources, and careers” and “increase the quality and diversity of the solar workforce and establish nationally consistent training standards.”

In line with Trump’s commitment to rebuilding U.S. manufacturing and competing with China, he could also redouble successful Energy Department programs to support research and development on cutting-edge technologies for solar and wind generation, energy storage, and power grid management.

Such proposals, coming from President Obama, earned widespread Republican scorn. Coming from Trump, they could create a major realignment in Congress by forging an alliance of Democrats with pragmatic Red State legislators who see where the new jobs are.

It can be done; in conservative Wyoming, a leading coal state, legislators recently crushed proposals to impose higher taxes on wind energy. President Trump just needs to follow through on his grand promises to blue collar voters, rather than continuing to act like just another traditional Republican pawn of the fossil fuel industry.

Solar farms can bring well-paying jobs along with clean energy to rural and rust-belt America.
Solar farms can bring well-paying jobs along with clean energy to rural and rust-belt America.
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