How Renewable Energy and Technology Can Save Appalachia

By: Ben Buchanan | benbuchanan@newzgroup.com

Over the course of the past few decades, there has been a noticeable decline in coal mining jobs throughout the Appalachian region in the United States.  While some often politicize this market trend, there are clear economic reasons for the shift.  The first is simply the effect of the free market on the coal industry.  For example, the natural gas fracking boom has led to an abundance of it at a vastly reduced price, offering cheap energy throughout the nation.  In similar fashion, the ever decreasing costs of renewable energy – both solar and wind – have driven down prices. Meanwhile the price of coal has risen for various reasons – including depleted mines, lawsuits, and stiffer environmental regulations.  This beggars the question, what can be done to help ensure employment in this region while coal mining jobs disappear?

Some will argue for a push towards deregulation of the mining industry, though this would have minimal effect. While it may be easy to blame environmental regulation for the declining fossil fuel markets, this is actually minuscule in comparison to the free market effects.  Others will push for the subsidization of the industry, which has some benefits. Though the cost for this may be insurmountable to taxpayers and require strong, long-term government intervention.

A better option to follow would be to shift the coal miners into emerging industries and markets such as technology. Again, this would require some government oversight and taxpayer funding, but this is a far better solution to the shorter term problem than the longer term full subsidization of the industry.

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One of the clear choices of emerging markets for coal miners to be retrained into is the also helping drive coal out of business – renewable energy.  As wind and solar farms continue to expand across the globe, it makes sense to allocate valuable land in the Appalachian region for this purpose. This would lead to swaths of future proof jobs for disenfranchised miners of the population.  The key to this is by incentivize tech startups and renewable energy company’s to open new renewable energy type farms and offer training in this region. Ideally this should benefit both sides of this equation – the businesses will tap new markets while the inhabitants of the region will have better job opportunities.

However, it’s key to create programs for former and current coal miners to be trained in tech, and the various tools and equipment involved in such work.  Luckily, due to the construction time necessary to implement wind and solar farms, ensures corresponding time to train coal miners for the jobs. One possible avenue is through utilizing local community colleges and online coding camps.  Such an endeavor is not inexpensive or foolproof, but it would help to stem the tide of underemployed miners while helping shift them into industries that are thriving and in need of skilled workers.