Geothermal heating and cooling plant located in Berea College's new energy efficient dormitory
Geothermal heating and cooling plant located in Berea College’s new energy efficient dormitory – Photo by Nick Mullins

If you ask a coal miner about the “War on Coal,” chances are you’ll get an earful about the EPA, President Obama, and all the environmentalists who don’t care about coal miners and their families. You’ll probably hear that coal mining is all there is in an area where no job alternatives exist to make a living wage. All politics aside, one has to realize they are absolutely right. Coal is all there is in Appalachia unless you join the ranks of the working poor for a part-time job at a grocery store, fast food joint, or the local Wal-Mart. I could explain the reasons things have come to be this way in Appalachia, citing a century’s worth of industry influence and political corruption, but there is no need at this point. The fact remains that coal is all there is at the moment, and coal employment will continue to decline despite any upticks in markets or deregulation of the industry.

Over the last two decades, many solutions have been offered up to diversify coalfield economies. High bandwidth internet infrastructure has been suggested to increase the possibility of electronic information technology jobs.  Some have begun workforce development initiatives, seeking to train an entire workforce worthy of attracting advance manufacturers to the region. The creation of a renewable energy industry has been a favorite among environmental activists and other liberal think tanks. And lastly, there are many who believe a tourist industry could be built around the remaining natural beauty of the region and even the history of coal mining.

Each has its flaws.

Electronic information technology jobs such as data centers don’t employ large numbers of people. Call centers are highly mobile and have a tendency to exploit local tax breaks. Once tax breaks end, they pull up stakes and move to the next economically depressed area. Advanced manufacturers have a lot to choose from when considering locations to invest in multi-million dollar facilities, including areas with larger populations, better access to transportation infrastructure, and not to mention areas with better-funded public education systems, no worry of environmental health issues, and many more recreational opportunities. Though renewable energy installations could create a short uptick in construction jobs, the jobs would only be short-term and local people would only be hired if outside contractors didn’t bring in their own workforce of skilled laborers. I think it’s also worth mentioning that wind and solar will never equal the base load capacities of coal or natural gas, especially if people continue wasting energy. Finally, tourism is predominantly a service based industry rife with minimum wage positions that do not offer health benefits. If tourism did grow, it would take the form of outside investors purchasing all the real estate and gentrifying local communities. Local residents would be left to suffer among service industry jobs, not unlike Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Boone, North Carolina to name a few.

So what industry could provide thousands of living wage jobs, jobs that do not require extensive retraining and could be accomplished using local training facilities? What industry would not require extensive infrastructure to be installed before jobs are offered to those who desperately need them?  What industry would help alleviate the issues of fossil fuel consumption?

Energy efficiency.
Energy efficiency technology has come a long way. It would take tens of thousands of skilled trade workers decades upon decades to upgrade public buildings, businesses, and homes with energy efficiency technology. Not only would this create steady, well-paying jobs—it would decrease our need for fossil fuels, thereby satisfying many environmental concerns while enhancing our national energy security. Coal miners and high school graduates could be trained and licensed in building trades specific to energy efficiency retrofits at local vocational schools and community colleges as well as given assistance in setting up employee-owned companies.

The transition won’t be without its issues. It will take tremendous investments in public projects to pay for materials and wages (perhaps from a national carbon fee & dividend)? Needless to say, this will take a great deal of political motivation. Appalachian communities as a whole will also have to step up and do their part.

The fact remains that political interests who have enjoyed the reign of coal will not turn their backs on the industry that has helped them maintain their wealth and power. People will have to take back control of their local, state, and federal governments from extractive industries. New politicians will have to be voted in and constantly watched. Absolute transparency will be needed in the procurement and distribution of federal funds necessary to ensure a proper economic transition. The Appalachian people have sacrificed enough. At the cost of our health and well being, we have dug the coal that has made everyone’s life in this nation more convenient. I think it’s only fair that this nation whose populist patriotic ideals are based upon liberty and justice for all, seeks to make true on its commitments.

There are several organizations who have started this kind of work, but their efforts are made difficult because of the lack of political will and people who still cling to the false promises of the coal industry. It’s time we move forward and this is one of many great ways we can.
For information check out these sites:


  1. I just wanted to correct your statement about wind and solar energy never being able to provide us with enough energy. Studies from Stanford University and the University of California at Davis show that land-based wind, water power, and solar potential exceed all global energy consumption needs.


    1. Technically correct. Unfortunately the Wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine so while “total” energy may be accurate, the issue of how to store the excess energy for use to ensure consistent energy access remains problematic (though certainly not insurmountable).


  2. Hello.

    I’ve read with interest about The Thoughtful Coal Miner and Nick Mullins in YES! Magazine. And about “the Appalachian Transition [that] will require creativity and a willingness to work together through partnerships, and across lines that we don’t normally cross. It will take different ideas, voices and bold leadership.”

    In this vein (as it were), I’d like to share an idea for a very unique and fun project that could attract many visitors from beyond
    — as well as from within — the Appalachian region, and generate many potentially creative and interesting new non-coal jobs in Coal Country while creating a lot of creative fun: An Appalachian Theme Park within a Played-out MTR Coal Mine.

    The variegated topography of an inactive MTR coal mine could become the site of a spectacular and unique new Appalachian theme park — some creative combination of (for example) multi-level terrain park, performance and concert setting, futuristic theme-park strangescape, festival and marketplace, and/or gothic halloweenland — a labyrinthine spaghetti skein of gravity tubes, slides, chutes and flumes.

    The multiple levels and strange contours of a mountaintopped coal mine — preferably one accessible from a major cross-state interstate highway to minimize new environmental intrusion — could be the literal basis of a one-of-a-kind fun spot and tourist attraction that creates a variety of good jobs for the West Virginians, Kentuckians, Tennesseans, Pennsylvanians, and others who collaborate to design, build, and operate it.

    Sort of from played-out to party-down.

    The space might even become the physical setting of a complex multi-level online game — paired with an online virtual environment with precisely the same topography and spaces for simultaneous coordinated real-world and online multi-player interaction.

    The process of conceptualizing and designing this could be a compelling region-wide (and beyond) creative participatory activity.

    The subterranean Mega Cave in Louisville might be a bit of a model for such a theme development.

    If something like this is designed and created over the next decade, I imagine the opening day will be carried on every television and digital network in existence, and the patronage will be strong from there on.

    Has anything like this been proposed for one of the more variegated MTR mine environments? Is this a concept that could be a part of the future of Appalachia?

    I’m curious. Any thoughts will be received with interest!

    Gregory Wright in Sherman Oaks, California


  3. I visited Island Creek several years ago mostly as an environmentalist and was surprised at the feeling that welled up inside me when meeting the folks there. I came away wanting to know what can be done for the people of Appalachia foremost. I don’t know where your idea has gone, but I like the idea of making homes more energy efficient and training for electricians, insulators, construction, building energy audits, …). I would guess that the average home could cut back energy use by 1/4 through conservation (LED ballast bypass, duct work, passive solar, …). And what about Gregory Wright’s post of April 16 on theme parks – zip lines and bungee jumping parks seem to be all the rage.


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