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On the upside, old coal plants often have rail and significant power infrastructure. On the downside, the sites are usually contaminated with coal ash, buried onsite for decades. With more of these buildings being shuttered throughout coal country, counties can apply for grants from local economic development agencies to do a feasibility study to discover how the buildings can be repurposed for a clean energy economy.
For jobless coal miners in Mingo County, West Virginia, a training program is restoring jobs and hope in Appalachian communities. Coalfield Development — a JTF grantee — is paying people to train for new jobs in construction, agriculture and solar installation. The effort so far has trained more than 2,500 people, created 800 jobs, and helped start 72 new businesses using $20 million in federal grants.
Since 1984, a mine has been discharging billions of gallons of water loaded with sulfuric acid and iron oxide into Sunday Creek in Millfield, Ohio, effectively killing the ecosystem along 13 miles of the waterway. But now, a major project is underway to clean up the discharge, restore the health of Sunday Creek and the watershed around it, and build a new industry by creating a product from a pollutant. Rural Action, a local community development nonprofit — and JTF grantee — is building a water treatment plant that can transform acid-mine drainage into raw material for paints and tints, all while creating local jobs, cleaning up the creek, and making enough money that it pays for itself.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has announced $10 million in federal funds to boost mine cleanup efforts in Colorado, a portion of the $16 billion in funds Congress designated for legacy pollution cleanup efforts nationwide.“People spend years dealing with serious environmental and health risks caused by these sites,” Haaland said. “Together we can make these smart investments and build a cleaner and more just future for our children and our grandchildren.”
While solar investment is receiving unprecedented federal funding, it still faces cultural and social barriers in former coal communities. One key, as seen in Wise County, Virginia, is through locals leading the charge to revitalize the economy in their own hometowns. “I’m from the coalfields,” said Emma Kelly, outreach director for Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia.. “And you have to understand. Coal mining is not just a job. The coal industry is not just an employer.” Wise County native Matt McFadden’s solar company employer started an apprentice program for local high schoolers that pays $17/hour. “When a lot of parents and grandparents saw that there were benefits for their children,” he said, “thought processes changed.”
In places where smokestacks once belched soot and ash, developers and community organizers are envisioning housing, parks, greenways, offices and retail - and a way to bring back economic vitality and restore the environment in blighted areas. A legal maneuver known as environmental liability transfer is making it feasible for developers to assume responsibility for environmental cleanup and remediation and making sites safe and viable for new use.
Bonus tax credits are boosting the economics of solar and battery storage on former coal plant sites and nearby land, but developers must forecast local unemployment to limit risks. To qualify, energy community projects must be located in areas with high fossil fuel-related employment and where the unemployment rate is higher than the national average, or in coal communities disproportionately affected by closures, including but not solely in terms of employment.
Here’s an excellent example in southeastern Kentucky of how a former mountaintop coal site can transition to an economic engine that creates jobs and clean energy. “This strategy generates clean electricity without placing solar panels in otherwise bucolic landscapes… It also directs decarbonization investment to communities that are feeling the economic impact of coal’s rapid decline.”
Given the state’s natural beauty, outdoor tourism in West Virginia represents a growing source of economic opportunity for many who formerly worked in the coal mining industry or its ancillary businesses.
Muara Bakah is a village in Indonesia that, like many communities around the world, has been built on a coal economy and is now faced with an uncertain future as the Indonesian government rolls out energy transition initiatives. And also like other communities, the local economy may collapse if it is not accompanied by real efforts to support a just energy transition.
Shuttered coal plants still have significant value to their communities – namely, established connections to the power grid and site infrastructure designed for the energy sector. Many could be workable for clean energy projects like solar arrays, battery storage facilities, or low-carbon hydrogen projects. And redeveloping former coal plants can ensure that nearby communities retain jobs and tax revenue during the clean energy transition.