The ancients looked into the night sky and saw not just stars, but patterns in the sky. They drew mental lines from this one to that one and that one over there. Out of the randomness of the universe, they created constellations that made sense. They connected the dots. It’s time for Southwest Virginia to connect some dots of our own. Here are the dots we see.
1. The coal-producing counties of Appalachia very much need a post-coal economy. On Sunday, we called attention to two inconvenient trends. First, the United States now generates more electricity from renewables than from coal. Second, more coal-fired plants closed during President Trump’s first two years in office than in Barack Obama’s entire first term. Furthermore, these trends are set to continue — no matter what the pro-coal Trump administration does. “The fate of coal has been sealed, the market has spoken,” Michael Webber, an energy expert at the University of Texas told The Guardian. “The trend is irreversible now. The decline of coal is unstoppable despite Donald Trump’s rhetoric.”)
2. When Ralph Northam was running for governor, he talked about making the University of Virginia’s College at Wise a center for research into renewable energy. He saw that as a way to create a high-tech industry in the coalfields, one that would spin off start-ups the way research at Virginia Tech has helped spawn many of the businesses in the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center. Northam hasn’t acted on this proposal, but we’re about to give him an opportunity. Stick with us.
3. The General Assembly has created an authority to govern a proposed energy research center. The Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority was the brainchild of Republican legislators from Southwest Virginia, and championed by Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, and state Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell County. Its mission is vague but potentially substantial: A vehicle to attract grants for energy research to the coal counties.
4. Environmental groups are pushing a “brownfields to brightfields” concept. There are lots of abandoned mines; what if those could be turned into sites for renewable energy —solar farms and wind farms? This concept seems a good way to take Appalachia’s historic dominance in one energy sector and leverage it to gain at least a part of the growing renewables sector.
5. U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith has put a lot of work into obtaining grants to convert abandoned mines to industrial purposes. The Salem Republican —who represents the coal counties — can wax poetic about how Appalachia’s topography makes it hard to find industrial sites and how converting abandoned mines is part of the answer. We bet some of you have just connected two dots already. In fact, he’s already helped obtain one federal grant to build a solar site on an abandoned mine.
6. Griffith and Northam get along surprisingly well for a Republican and a Democrat. They are both old-style politicians who understand they can disagree politically and still get along personally. Griffith has had unusually warm words to say about Northam whenever the governor has been in Southwest Virginia for economic development announcements; Northam has returned the favor.
Some may see six completely separate things here. What we see is a potential constellation — or, if you prefer, a harmonic convergence. This seems a rare opportunity to get a lot of people who aren’t normally on the same side to work together — Democrats and Republicans, environmentalists and coal companies, environmentalists and utilities, fossil fuel interests and renewable businesses.
More to the point, here’s what we propose: Northam and Griffith should jointly convene a summit to talk about creating a brightfields economy in Southwest Virginia. Hold it at UVa-Wise. Use it to draft an actual action plan.
The brownfields-to-brightfields concept is a simple one to explain but much harder to execute. There are lots of players whose interests don’t always overlap — out-of-state coal companies that own the land, renewable companies that may not even know Appalachia exists, utilities that have their own plans for generating electricity that don’t include brightfields, utility customers who don’t want to see their rates jacked up to fund a project that or may or may not be as economically feasible as some others. If the idea is ever going to get seriously studied, somebody’s got to make that happen. Somebody’s got to get all the players together. A governor has the institutional heft to convene such a gathering. Getting a Democratic governor and a Republican congressman to team up sends a powerful signal that this isn’t just about politics; it’s about policy — and is a serious endeavor. Of course, as we explained Sunday, simply turning abandoned mines into solar farms and wind farms doesn’t automatically create a large number of jobs — although in the coalfields, any jobs are welcome. Here’s where that energy research center comes into play. Maybe that’s just going to be something on paper. Or maybe it could be something real and powerful. To be the latter, it’s going to need money — some serious money. Getting government grants is important, but this center really needs to be endowed on the same level as a small college. That means private money, lots of it. We don’t know where that’s coming from, but maybe this proposed summit could begin to map out a strategy. U.S. Rep. Don Beyer, D-Alexandria, has said that Virginia Tech’s new “’innovation campus” in his district may someday grow into the next Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That’s great. But why couldn’t this energy research center do the same in Southwest Virginia?
Another leading advocate for the region is Jack Kennedy, the Democratic clerk of court in Wise County. He’s talked up the coalfields’ potential for data centers. One of the main obstacles: Tech companies prefer green energy, so the coalfields are among the last places they’d look. Here’s a way to turn that around. Here’s also another reason why the governor should be involved. Amazon has chosen Virginia — Northern Virginia — under his watch. Surely he can pick up the phone and call Jeff Bezos to send some high-level representation to this proposed brightfields summit. Maybe nothing would come of this. History is full of meetings that went nowhere. But, as with most things, you never know unless you try. Who’s willing to try here? Or will we let this opportunity pass? The clock is ticking.