Here are two interesting facts — or inconvenient truths, as some might say:
1. The United States now generates more electricity from renewables than from coal. In 2015, natural gas surpassed coal as the nation’s number one energy source — a position that natural gas still holds at about 35%. However, in April, coal slipped even further, down to third place. That month, renewables such as wind and solar produced 23% of the nation’s energy while coal produced only 20%. Spring is historically a good time for renewables, and energy demands are at a low ebb — so industry experts expect coal to move back into second place as the year goes on. Still, the trend line is clear: Coal is going down, and renewables are moving up. More context: In 2000, coal produced 52% of the nation’s electricity; last year, it was 27.5%.
2. More coal-fired plants closed during President Trump’s first two years in office than in Barack Obama’s entire first term. How can this be? Didn’t Trump come to Southwest Virginia and vow “we’re going to bring back King Coal!” He did. But the free market has a mind of its own, no matter how many environmental regulations Trump repeals. Other forms of energy are now cheaper than coal. Forbes magazine — more interested in the greenbacks of the capitalist economy than green energy for its own sake — reports that 74% of coal plants are now more expensive to operate than the renewables that could replace them. By 2025, that figure is expected to be 85%.
That doesn’t mean utilities will instantly convert their coal-fired plants to renewables — they’re already made those investments and aren’t keen to make new ones until they have to. But it does mean that when utilities do need to build new plants, they won’t be building coal plants. “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.” That’s why a speaker at an energy conference in Roanoke earlier this year organized by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce provocatively referred to the coalfields of Southwest Virginia as “the former coalfields.” That’s a bit premature, but is a good warning.
We often write about how the coalfields, former or otherwise, need to build a new economy. Here’s a more ambitious variation on that theme: What would it take for the Appalachian coalfields to dominate the renewable energy era the way they did the fossil fuel era? This isn’t an original question, of course. We’ve heard others pose the question, too. Most recently we’ve heard it posed by one of the unlikeliest sources — a pro-coal Republican from Southwest Virginia. “We have to re-invent ourselves,” Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, has said. “As we discover new sources of energy, what better place than Southwest Virginia?” A great question, so what’s the answer? Spoiler alert: You won’t find the answer here. If the answer were that simple, it might have already been done. Instead, we offer some observations and questions intended to provoke some thought, and ideally some action:
A. Can we turn brownfields into brightfields? That’s the slogan some are adopting. There are lots of abandoned mines; what would it take to turn those into renewable energy sites? The process has started. In July, it was announced that a 3-megawatt solar array will go up on an abandoned mine in Wise County. What would it take to do more? Probably a lot more government involvement than the Republicans who represent most of Appalachia are typically comfortable with — and a lot more interest in Appalachia than Democrats have demonstrated since the War on Poverty. You can’t just put up some solar panels or wind turbines and start selling power into the grid. Electricity is one of the most regulated fields around. Somebody’s got to have enough political power to convene all the potential stakeholders — utilities and coal companies to start with— and figure out what combination of carrots and sticks are required to make that transition happen. Keep in mind that utilities are investor-owned companies; just because turning brownfields into brightfields is a good idea doesn’t mean it’s good for their bottom line, or their customers’ bills. How much power could be generated, and at what cost, and how does that compare to whatever the alternatives are? These are only some of the questions involved. Let’s assume it could happen, though. That brings us to:
B. Can Appalachia really be a center for renewable energy? Perhaps, but not like it was for coal. Coal is concentrated in certain places; the sources for renewable energy are widely distributed. Renewable energy can never mean as much to Appalachia as coal did because we won’t have a monopoly on the source. Still, the brightfield concept seems a way to get a piece of a growing industry. Here’s a suggestion: Either U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, or Gov. Ralph Northam should convene a summit to get started. Griffith has the most direct interest; Northam has the most institutional power. So, who will it be?
C. Simply being an energy center doesn’t automatically translate into regional affluence. Historically, the coal mines in Appalachia made lots of money for owners and investors, but not necessarily people in Appalachia, though those mines did yield jobs. Even if every abandoned mine in Appalachia were turned into a solar site or a wind site doesn’t mean the profits would enrich the region. That’s the challenge: What can be done to create not just energy here, but also jobs —and higher-paying jobs? During the 2017 governor’s race, Northam proposed doing research into renewable energy at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise — as a way to spin off a high-tech industry in Southwest Virginia. He hasn’t followed through on that proposal (another reason for him to do so now), but Kilgore and state Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell County have. They persuaded this year’s General Assembly to create a Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority that hopes to create an energy research center somewhere. For now, it’s an empty shell of a concept — but one that seems to have potential. What would it take to endow this proposed center with enough money to make a real difference? And who’s got the political heft to solicit that kind of money? Perhaps that’s another topic for our proposed brightfield summit? Tomorrow, we’ll take a more detailed look at what such a summit might try to accomplish.