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Opinion: A 'Just Transition' for Coal Country Means Investing

KentuckyCoalMinePhoto4-feature750As world leaders gathered in New York City to sign the historic Paris Climate Agreement last month, community leaders in Central Appalachia were working to ensure that our region is not left behind in a new energy economy.

The recent bankruptcy of Peabody Energy is one more stark indicator of the drastic changes in the coal industry as companies fail, coal plants shut down and mines close. It is important that our leaders understand that a just transition for coal communities must be a central pillar in the development of climate-change policy.

Peter Hille
Peter Hille

A just transition requires reinvesting in regions that have historically relied on fossil fuel extraction as their economic engine. These communities fueled the growth of our nation and paid a heavy toll with the lives of their workers and the health of their communities. Creating a just transition means building a new economy that is diverse, sustainable and provides opportunities for all.

The Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED) has spent the last 40 years developing effective strategies for economic development in Central Appalachia, including investing in entrepreneurs, providing technical assistance and focusing on key economic sectors.

Energy — both efficiency and renewable energy — is one of the most promising sectors today as we respond to massive changes in the economic landscape.

Residential energy efficiency is important in places like Appalachia, where housing stock is poor and energy use is high. Programs like How$martKY™ enable electric utilities to finance energy efficiency upgrades for their customers.

Local contractors do the work, the investment is repaid through a charge on the utility bill, and the cost is offset by the energy savings.

This creates a chain reaction of benefits: Homeowners, many of whom are low income, decrease their utility costs and enjoy more comfortable homes; local contractors expand their businesses; utilities are better able to manage demand; and greenhouse gas emissions are reduced.

Energy efficiency also helps businesses lower their monthly bills. MACED has helped one grocery store in Eastern Kentucky implement efficiency retrofits that are projected to save more than $40,000 annually in utility costs. These savings help keep prices low and the store open in a community that could otherwise become a food desert.

Once homeowners and businesses see the benefits of energy efficiency, they often want to further reduce costs. Private companies such as Mountain View Solar in West Virginia and Solar Energy Solutions in Kentucky have been on the cutting edge of solar installation, education and advocacy in Appalachia — and are creating jobs as they do this.

The Berea Solar Farm allows Berea Utilities customers to lease solar panels and realize the savings on their bills. That project has helped to inform the development of much larger solar installations now being implemented by other utilities in Kentucky.

There are new jobs to be created. Senate Bill 303 called for displaced coal-industry workers to be retrained for jobs as energy auditors and energy efficiency contractors, but the bill never made it out of committee. And energy is not the only sector we should look to — local foods, tourism, health care and cultural and creative industries all offer new economic opportunities. Realizing these potentials will require significant investment.

President Barack Obama has leveraged major federal funding for coal communities through his POWER Initiative and POWER+ Plan. U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers has called for more investment by introducing the RECLAIM Act this spring, which would help clean up abandoned mine lands while increasing economic development in the region. These are important investments that must be used wisely. State and federal policies should incorporate the principles of just transition as these initiatives are rolled out.

Communities that have relied on fossil fuels — and for whom the industry is closely tied to local history, culture and identity — must not be left behind as political leaders create the framework of the new energy economy.

We should respect the great contributions that these communities have made to economic progress for more than a century, while also looking toward the future and reinvesting in those regions in meaningful and sustainable ways.

Peter Hille serves as president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development. The organization, based in Berea, Kentucky, works with residents to focus on economic alternatives for the state and Central Appalachia. This opinion essay first appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader. It is reprinted with permission. In the top photo, coal piles up under a tipple in Harlan County, Kentucky in March 2016. Mike Kane made the photo for Equal Voice News. 

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