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Date: 2024-05-27 Page is: DBtxt003.php txt00016461

Transitioning the Economy

RIP Coal. Long Live Coal Country ... Jobs in southeast Kentucky's coal mines are vanishing. Can green jobs replace them?


Peter Burgess

Grist / Famartin / John M Lund Photography Inc / Getty Images COVER STORY ... RIP Coal. Long Live Coal Country ... Jobs in southeast Kentucky's coal mines are vanishing. Can green jobs replace them?

Scott Shoupe didn’t want to follow his classmates into the coal mines when he graduated from Harlan High School in 1993. His ticket out — “to make something of myself” — was a baseball scholarship 130 miles north at Morehead State University.

But when his favorite sport started feeling more like a job than fun, the headstrong outfielder dropped out two years short of a bachelor’s degree. Shoupe returned home to Harlan County, an isolated and impoverished patch of southeast Kentucky, and like his father before him, signed up to mine coal.

“That’s all there was,” Shoupe said. “It was the one thing I could do to make money.”

King Coal has dominated this part of Appalachia for more than a century, powering local economies and offering lucrative, if dangerous, steady employment. That era is vanishing as mines shutter and coal companies across the country file for bankruptcy. So Shoupe is following his father, Carl, once again. But this time, it’s into a career that’s less about unearthing energy and more about using it super-efficiently.

At 43, he’s about to become the third graduate of a “new energy internship” for the region’s displaced coal workers. It’s a project of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, a local nonprofit. Enrollees in the program earn full-time wages and health benefits for six months while immersing themselves in the intricacies of lighting, weatherization, solar panels, and decoding utility bills.

Despite President Trump’s campaign mantra about championing miners and “putting our great coal miners back to work,” the industry continues to shed jobs. And that means people like Shoupe need a hand to move from an old, carbon-heavy economy to a new, green one.

Coal once defined southeast Kentucky’s character. Starting in the 1930s, miners in Harlan County went on strike against their employers, demanding fair wages and safer working conditions. Their efforts led to pitched battles with employers over the decades, sometimes turning the area into a “war zone,” with bombings and shootouts.

All those union mines have shut down, along with plenty of others. Nearly 6,600 Kentuckians worked in coal at last count, down roughly 80 percent in three decades, according to statistics from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. Some 41 percent of people in Harlan County live in poverty, according to the Census Bureau, more than triple the national average. And surrounding counties aren’t much better off.

Mechanization has played a role in the region’s struggles. Enormous machines now do the same work that miners once did by hand. But the main reason is that the country is weaning itself off the dirty fossil fuel. Hydraulic fracturing has created a glut of cheap natural gas, and technological advances have made solar and wind competitive. The result: a growing bounty of green jobs and fewer and fewer people heading from high school to the mines in Appalachia.

Scott Shoupe. Photo by Elizabeth McGowan

According to a recent report from E2, a national nonprofit pushing policies that benefit both the economy and the environment, roughly 25,000 Kentuckians are employed in all aspects of energy efficiency. That’s more than three times as many who work in coal.

So it makes sense that the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, or MACED, is working to shift Kentucky’s workers from a dying sector to a growing one. Even though traditional coal states have been slow to embrace a clean-energy economy, making the sort of home improvements that pay for themselves through lower utility bills isn’t a tough sell. The fact that it also helps beat a path to a new future is sometimes besides the point.

“This isn’t sexy like granite countertops or a new bathroom,” said Chris Woolery, who oversees the internship program at MACED. “It’s about making homes more affordable, healthier, and comfortable.”

The organization got the internship program up and running in 2017 after cobbling together several million dollars from a variety of sources, including a state employment program funded with federal money. A big boost came the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal agency tasked with supporting economic growth in the 13 Appalachian states.

Kentucky’s surplus of displaced coal workers means MACED can be selective with internship assignments. After Woolery and his colleagues winnow applications to a choice few, they interview candidates over Skype and give them exercises on spreadsheets, hoping to find people who can be equally adept at installing solar panel on rooftops and serving as ambassadors for energy efficiency and clean energy. Woolery expects to have 12 interns graduate by the end of the year.

To Woolery, the internships align with MACED’s focus on redeveloping the region’s economy. Beyond that, it’s part of a wider mission, a shift toward mining the region’s ingenuity instead of its natural resources. “We’re trying to think more broadly than just a program,” he said. “Our idea is to create a clean-energy ecosystem in the state.”

Wendy Wasserman, a spokesperson for the Appalachian Regional Commission, said it’s no simple task to reinvent the economy of a region that has been dependent on one industry for so long. The difficulty is compounded by an opioid epidemic that has pummeled Appalachia especially hard. “There is this expectation that these economies long dominated by coal would turn on a dime,” Wasserman said. “That’s a false expectation because this isn’t an immediate switch.”

After all his talk about reviving miners’ livelihoods, Trump delivered a gut-punch to the region by eviscerating the commission’s budget during his first year in office. Congress has since reversed course, and the agency’s budget of $165 million this year is among the biggest in its 53-year history.

Since 2015, the agency has awarded $145 million through its POWER Initiative to a wide array of revitalization projects across 312 Appalachian counties. Each project requires matching funds from a partner, such as a college, local government, or a nonprofit like MACED.
More in this series :

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This Kansas City neighborhood wrote the blueprint for transforming a community

How coal communities can outlive coal
SITE COUNT Amazing and shiny stats
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