by Olivia Haynes, a Bedford native and Biological Sciences major at Virginia Tech
Coal in Appalachia has been the main source of power for over 100 years. As long-time reporter and editor James Casto noted in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Appalachian Power gets 60% of its electricity from coal as of 2019. That’s down from 83% in 2011, however. And, whereas there were 25,000 coal jobs available in 2011, this number declined to 11,500 by 2016. The central Appalachian economy will suffer if there isn’t a replacement.
Fortunately, Rep. Donald McEachin (D-VA04) introduced H.R. 4291, the Low-Income Solar Energy Act, to the U.S. House of Representatives, and a companion bill, S. 2462, is in the U.S. Senate. The bill would expand access to solar energy for low-income households by stabilizing funding for the Low Income Housing Energy Assistance Program and by making financing for solar installation more accessible and affordable. Congressman McEachin represents a relatively urban district in southeastern Virginia, but the passage of his bill would benefit Southwest Virginia, too. House Democrats should reach across the aisle to Morgan Griffith (R-VA09) in order to move this bill out of the House Subcommittee on Energy with bipartisan support. Representative Griffith may be reluctant to publicly admit that Southwest Virginia needs more options than coal, but he is smart enough to know that it does.
Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are the answer not only for more affordable electric bills and a better environment, but also for a stronger economy in the long run. Already, the Coalfield Development Corporation is offering a paid apprenticeship where workers learn how to install solar panels and other equipment. Coalfield Development was created in 2010 by two West Virginians in an effort to modernize the region by using sustainable sources of power, specifically solar, and help fight climate change. Legislation such as the Low-Income Solar Energy Act is needed to create more such initiatives. If passed, the Low-Income Solar Energy Act can assist people, including former coal miners, by providing solar industry training. Additionally, tenants living in low-income housing will have their rent reduced based on the amount of money saved from transitioning to solar energy. States would oversee distribution of these federal funds, and Virginia’s legislators should prioritize not only women and minority-owned business owners in districts like Rep. McEachin’s (as is stipulated by the bill) but also first time business owners in the coalfields.
One major criticism of efforts like those of the Coalfield Development Corporation is that former miners transitioning into solar energy jobs make lower wages. Solar workers still make a livable wage, however, and the risks to workers and communities are much less serious.
Coal remains an essential component of identity in much of Southwest Virginia, even though it is progressively becoming a less essential component of the regional economy. The transition to renewables may need to be gradual, but it is possible. Renewable energy is the future for Appalachia, and solar should have its rightful place here just as coal has had in the past.
The future of Appalachia depends on an economic, clean, consistent source of energy. Virginians, Republicans and Democrats alike, should ask their members of Congress to support the Low-Income Solar Energy Act.