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Brandon Dennison

The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis reports 2020 will be the first year ever in which U.S. utilities get more electricity from renewables than from coal. It’s now clearer than ever that coal isn’t coming back. This is a painful and scary reality for our region. But this is also an opportunity for an entrepreneurial movement to rebuild a stronger economy that works for more of us.

Over the past year, I have been a very active part of a nationwide committee working to create a national policy platform that helps build a future in which southern West Virginia and other communities hit hard by the decline of the coal industry have vibrant, resilient, and equitable economies with thriving, local businesses and quality, family-sustaining jobs.

From here in Appalachia to native reservations to the western coalfields, the people and communities hit hard by the changing coal economy are facing a profound and urgent crisis that the COVID-19 pandemic and economic decline has only made more difficult. Coal facility closures, layoffs, and cuts to vital services like health care and education are accelerating, devastating those that have been dependent on the coal economy — many of whom were not on equal footing to begin with, struggling following previous recessions and decades of inequality and widespread poverty.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration recently reported its expectation that electricity generation from coal will fall by 20% in 2020, while coal production will fall by 22% as domestic demand decreases and exports drop. In its wake, coal is leaving behind crippling poverty, multiple health crises (including black lung and opioid addiction), and environmental destruction. The people and places that powered our country for generations deserve much better.

While places that once relied on coal are facing crisis, bold and creative leaders from these communities are developing and implementing solutions that create inclusive, equitable, and sustainable economic growth, driven from the ground up. Our National Economic Transition (NET) platform is based on community-driven solutions, crafted by local, tribal, and labor leaders living and working in America’s coal communities.

The product of a year-long collaboration between these leaders and public, private, and nonprofit partners convened by the Just Transition Fund, this platform gives federal and national leaders the framework to develop a program for the just and equitable national transition that our communities need and deserve. Our platform is built on seven pillars that, together, will create vibrant, livable, inclusive places and communities:

n Investing in supporting local leaders and organizations to lead the transition — especially black, brown, women, and indigenous-led organizations;

n Support local small businesses and entrepreneurship;

n Provide a bridge for workers to quality, family-sustaining jobs;

n Reclaim and remediate coal sites;

n Improve physical and social infrastructure;

n Hold coal companies accountable during bankruptcies;

n Creating entities to coordinate the transition program and equip communities with the resources they need.

I strongly urge you to support our platform. Please contact your elected officials in support. You can learn more here: https://www.justtransitionfund.org/resources/getting-started

Those most affected by coal’s collapse don’t have to be collateral damage in the transition to renewable energy; we can be the leaders of an entirely new and better economy. In fact, I believe Appalachians have the exact skills our country will need to remain globally competitive in this new, more sustainable economy. We make, fix, build, and grow. And coal’s decline creates whole new opportunities for a new generation of Appalachian entrepreneurs. The NET platform ensures proper investment in these new opportunities, so the next generation can grow up in a healthy, thriving community.

Brandon Dennison is executive director of Coalfield Development Corp.

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