Most communities around the world aren’t yet aware of how climate change will drastically impact their land, economy, and way of life. But the downsides of a fossil fuel–based economy are already well known in the coalfields of central Appalachia, a region including southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia, and east Tennessee. Central Appalachia’s coal economy has severely altered the landscape and created communities made up of “haves and have-nots.”1 But by creating jobs in ways that improve the land, air, and water, a green jobs strategy can set a new course for a needed economic transition.

Coal mining currently employs around 38,000 people in central Appalachia, and miners make good salaries. But due largely to mechanization, those jobs now make up only about 10 percent of employment in the coal counties, which suffer from high and persistent poverty.2 Most of the benefits of coal extraction have bypassed the region. While more than 20 billion tons of coal have been mined in central Appalachia over the last 100 years, the region contains 23 of the poorest 100 counties in the country, measured by median household income.3,4,5 There has been too little economic diversification beyond retail and social services in central Appalachia, and unemployed and discouraged workers make up a significant share of the working-age population.2 Decreasing coal reserves, the rising competitiveness of energy alternatives, and needed environmental and health restrictions will mean continued decline in central Appalachian coal production and employment over the next few decades.6,7

Green jobs are critical in central Appalachia for a number of reasons. First, an economy based on a different relationship to the land and to energy is essential to avoid the destruction from abusive mining practices that, if allowed to continue, would limit any long-term possibilities. Second, the region’s ancient mountains and diverse forests are among its main assets, and they present numerous income-generating opportunities that do not compromise the integrity of the land. And third, addressing the region’s existing environmental degradation presents immediate green job opportunities. That work is huge and labor intensive, and requires some of the skills and experience of the region’s existing workforce, including those who have worked in coal.

Public investment could advance a green jobs strategy, and the region’s transition could start today in five overlapping green jobs areas:

1. Increase Energy Efficiency in Homes, Buildings, and Businesses

Central Appalachia has high energy usage, related to a historic neglect of energy efficiency. Kentucky’s residential sector, for example, uses 24 percent more energy on average than the nation, and a recent Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) report projected that energy usage in Appalachia will grow at a rate 50 percent higher than the national rate between now and 2030.8,9 High energy usage and inattention to energy efficiency have been fed by low electricity prices from coal-fired power. But those prices are rising dramatically (up 40 percent in Kentucky in the last five years alone) and will increase further in future years.

High energy usage has a lot to do with substandard housing and lack of investment in the existing building infrastructure. More than 100,000 families in central Appalachia lack access to quality housing. Central Appalachian homes are three to four times more likely to be substandard in comparison to homes elsewhere in the nation. Approximately 25 percent of the housing stock consists of manufactured homes, most of which are highly inefficient, a share that rises to 40 percent in some counties.

A number of regional efforts are emerging to deal with these challenges, and they could be accelerated through greater federal financial support. Frontier Housing, a regional nonprofit, has developed a program to replace the estimated 300,000 highly inefficient mobile homes built before the 1976 HUD mobile home code with ENERGY STAR homes. The Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED) is working with a number of rural electric co-ops in eastern Kentucky to create a pilot on-bill financing program for energy efficiency improvements that would be open to residents, commercial businesses, and institutions. And the Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises is working to double the number of highly energy efficient green homes built for low-income families through its member organizations. An ARC report found that a set of modeled energy efficiency policies in the region would save Appalachian consumers almost $10 billion annually on their energy bills by 2020 and create over 37,000 jobs.

2. Expand Local Renewable Energy Production

Central Appalachia’s historic reliance on coal has also meant little progress in diversifying into renewable energy sources. However, the region possesses real renewable energy potential. Wind power is possible at distributed and at utility scale, particularly on ridgetops in central Appalachia. With the higher hub heights of modern wind turbines, West Virginia has at least 2,772 megawatts (MW) of wind potential, and the best wind potential in Kentucky is in the counties in the southeastern coalfields.10,11

Community-scale energy from woody biomass is also a significant opportunity. The ARC estimates the total annual biomass resources for the Appalachian states at over 108 million tons.12 Solar potential exists in central Appalachia, particularly for distributed applications of solar thermal and solar photovoltaic (PV). Small, low-power hydro and micro-hydro are also an opportunity; the Idaho National Laboratory has estimated 518 MW of potential in Kentucky and 484 MW in West Virginia.13

Local efforts to develop renewable energy are emerging. Leaders of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth in the former company towns of Benham and Lynch have launched a local initiative to address the need for renewable energy and energy efficiency in the area. The nearby mountains have the greatest wind potential in all of Kentucky, and the rate of residential electricity usage in Benham is one of the highest in the state, in part due to poorly insulated housing stock.14 In southern West Virginia, the leaders of Coal River Wind developed a model and a proposal for a 328-MW wind farm on Coal River Mountain as an alternative to mountaintop removal mining in the same location.15 An economic impact analysis suggests that the wind farm would create more long-term jobs and have a greater economic impact than coal mining—particularly if local production of turbine components could be incorporated.16

Federal investment could support existing efforts and create new models. The USDA’s Rural Utilities Service financing for renewable energy production and energy efficiency efforts could assist regional electric utilities in beginning to transition. Setting aside funds for central Appalachia through such sources as the USDA Rural Energy for America Program and the Department of Energy (DOE) Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant could support local planning and establish needed demonstrations of community-scale renewable energy projects.

3. Increase Sustainable Management of Forestland and Build a Sustainable Forest Economy

About 70 percent of the land in central Appalachia is forested, and the region possesses a diverse hardwood forest mix. But the forests have suffered from high-grading—the removal of only high quality trees, which degrades forest quality—and the prevalence of predatory or irresponsible logging practices. Over 90 percent of the forestland is privately owned, most often by families who have small tracts or by absentee landholding companies. There are few incentives or resources for private landowners to pursue sustainable forestland management and few opportunities for local communities to have a say in the use of forestland owned by outside corporate interests.

In this same context, the market for wood products is shifting to sustainably certified wood, a practice supported by government procurement policies. Many of the region’s existing wood processors are obtaining chain-of-custody certification to access these markets, but they lack a local supply of certified wood; in Kentucky, for example, only about 1,000 acres are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Other markets for the region’s forests either exist or are emerging, including ecosystem services (for which MACED is now operating a program to broker the sale of working forest carbon credits), woody biomass for energy, and non-timber forest products.

Federal assistance could help establish a certification support center that would help small landowners and wood-products businesses obtain certification. A wood-products competitiveness corporation could help primary and secondary manufacturers grow, modernize, and cooperate. Expanded support for management planning and cost-share programs could increase private forestland management and fill the gap left by federal government budget cuts. To make woody biomass a sustainable opportunity would require more research in order to create harvesting guidelines, understand the relationship between biomass supply and potential demand, and identify which technologies are most beneficial economically and ecologically. And a land bank for community financing and purchase of pre- and post-mine land for sustainable forestry activities could expand local control of land currently owned by outside interests.

4. Support Expansion of a Sustainable Local Foods System

The growing demand for local, healthy, and sustainably produced foods in the region’s urban fringe is juxtaposed with a fairly widespread lack of access to good foods (due to distance, income, and market hurdles), especially for lower income people. Health problems linked to poor diet are a major issue in the region, and efforts to increase access to good local food are a critical part of the solution. In addition, there is significant economic and job creation potential in the food and farming sector. Economist Ken Meter found in 2007 that $2.2 billion in annual income could be created for farmers in Virginia if all of the state’s residents bought local farm products just one day a week.

A number of important models exist in the region. About 60 farmers participate in Appalachian Harvest, a program of Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD) based in southwest Virginia. Appalachian Harvest farmers grow organic produce and free-range eggs, which ASD then sorts in a packinghouse and sells to about 600 supermarkets and other institutions at a premium under its Appalachian Harvest brand. The Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACENet) in Appalachian Ohio has created a commercial kitchen and thermal processing facility for local food entrepreneurs to develop value-added products with the assistance of a food scientist and a business counselor. The Jubilee Project in northeast Tennessee operates a community kitchen, manages a co-op of 30 local farmers, and is accessing markets in the local school system. Other organizations, like Rural Action, are demonstrating success with farmers’ markets and produce auctions.

Federal investment could build upon these local efforts by, for example, creating a grants pool administered by ARC and USDA that would expand these initiatives and launch new ones. Other new USDA financing and assistance efforts supportive of local food enterprises and initiatives could include set-asides for central Appalachia, such as the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program.

5. Invest in Environmental Remediation and Restoration of Land

Communities in central Appalachia face serious challenges: how to remediate surface-mined land and how to deal with the impacts of acid mine drainage, slurry ponds, and other mine-related issues. While proper remediation methods can never restore land to its pre-mining condition and should not be an excuse for allowing continued destructive practices, there is a need for strategies to address the damage that has already been done. While the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) sought to address the reclamation of land that was mined both before and after passage of the act, numerous problems with the design and implementation of the law have meant inadequate progress.

Problems with current reclamation laws include the historic use of poor reclamation methods that create little or no regeneration; the failure to pay out the full funds in the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) fund and the continuing appropriation of AML monies to western states with no abandoned mine lands left; the lack of a federal commitment to fully address all of the region’s remediation and restoration challenges; and the lack of community visioning and planning processes for what could be done with formerly mined sites.

The federal government should direct more resources to environmental remediation in central Appalachia by changing the formulas in the AML and other programs. It should increase support for innovative and improved efforts at reclamation, including the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative and local efforts like those of East Kentucky Biodiesel, which has plans for “ecological remediation plantations” on formerly mined land that use native species to produce high efficiency bioenergy for local use. Decisions about the best use of these lands should be driven by citizen involvement and local planning.

What’s at Stake

Twenty or thirty years from now, central Appalachia will be a different place than it is today. In one scenario, the land will be decimated by increasingly radical mining practices used to haul out the last tons of coal in the cheapest way possible, leaving the region’s communities further depopulated and demoralized. In a second scenario, it will be a region in the midst of transition. There will be a greater sense of hope, new local businesses and projects forming, more democratic public decision making, and a land that is beginning to heal. Which scenario plays out has implications not just for central Appalachia, but for the rest of the country and beyond. The powerful corporations that are influencing climate, energy, and other policies in this country derive their wealth and political power from places like central Appalachia. Federal investment now in green jobs can start us on the course of transition, and transition here can help make bigger transitions possible elsewhere.


Jason Bailey

Jason Bailey is Research and Policy Director at the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED). Previously, he was co-director of the Democracy Resource Center, where his work included...

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