MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — It was perhaps the most sobering number of all the sad statistics at a conference summing up the state of West Virginia’s coal-based economy: About 25 percent of Appalachian Power customers in southern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia are delinquent on their electric bills.
That means that 1 in 4 people can’t keep the lights on in a place where the chief industry is mining coal to fuel the power plants that keep the lights on. The low price of natural gas, a slump in overseas demand for coal and the regulatory changes looming in the Clean Power Plan have depleted the state, particularly its southern portion, where the financial collapse of several large coal companies threatens an already endangered economy.
The seas aren’t rising in West Virginia, but the economic realities of climate change arrived nonetheless to the state Friday at the annual National Energy Conference at the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at the West Virginia University School of Law. The conference focused on resiliency, including finding ways for people in West Virginia to take charge of their economic future. The discussion proved to be an honest — and occasionally brutal — reckoning of West Virginia’s current economy as well as the efforts to build a more resilient workforce and industrial base.
"There’s a certain inevitability of these changes, it does weigh heavy on you," said Charles Patton, president and chief operating officer of Appalachian Power, said Friday. "What do you do?"
Although some parts of West Virginia are doing well, overall, the state is in a recession, said John Deskins, the director of the West Virginia University Bureau of Business and Economic Research. At least five counties are in what Deskins called a "Great Depression," where 1 in 3 jobs has disappeared.
"We’re talking about long-term, permanent changes," Deskins said.
Losing an industry, creating a ‘new narrative’
He and other speakers laid bare the grim economic truths about declining coal production. In 2008, West Virginia produced 150 million to 160 million tons of coal, Deskins said. Production dropped to 100 million tons last year, and it is forecast to be as low as 80 million tons in 2016, he said.
West Virginia leads the 28 states opposed to U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which, if upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, will reduce coal use at power plants across the United States. Yet no one at Friday’s energy gathering sugarcoated their expectations. No one, including the current and former head of the state’s Department of Commerce, said he expected coal to resurge as a fuel or as an employer in the state, and several presenters noted that there are other regulatory frameworks that could be used to curtail carbon emissions, even if courts strike down the Clean Power Plan.
With the exception of Sen. Joe Manchin, (D-W.Va.), who appeared via video message during the conference, few mentioned clean coal technologies or other measures to prolong the state’s reliance on the fossil fuel.
Instead, they focused on the work at hand. It was as though after acknowledging the reality of their state’s dire situation, they were free to imagine all sorts of ways to free themselves from the past to adapt to a new climate — literally and figuratively.
Many speakers took their cue from a West Virginia icon, former Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, a Democrat whose name is on the university’s School of Policy and Politics. It’s time for West Virginia to "boldly face the reality of the transition" with optimism and to help those who need it most, Rockefeller, 78, told the gathering.
"Surround yourself with hope," he said. "You cannot be afraid if you want a future. And we cannot be afraid on their behalf."
Coal country needs "a new narrative … a narrative that is written by us, not about us," said Jeff Whitehead, executive director of the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, a jobs program that has taught former coal field workers computer coding languages. Many have found jobs with companies that allow them to work remotely, a boon to people loathe to leave their families and communities and who might not be able to sell their homes in a stagnant housing market.
Finding hope in locally grown food
Hopeful stories included the Coalfield Development Corp. based in southern West Virginia’s Wayne County. There, it has created a jobs program that puts participants to work 33 hours a week, said Brandon Dennison, its executive director. Participants attend community college six hours a week to work toward an associate’s degree and spend three hours a week learning life skills. They learn sustainable construction, solar panel installation and other growing trades.
"We absolutely subscribe to the notion that when it comes to this transition thing, nobody’s going to do it for us," Dennison said. "So we’re eager to have investment, we’re eager to attract investment to the region, but we know we’ve got to do this ourselves from the bottom up. There’s no white knight."
They’re also working to rebuild West Virginia’s agricultural sector, said Ben Gilmer, president of Refresh Appalachia, an agricultural offshoot of Coalfield Development.
His group is working to cultivate a new generation of farmers as well as to recalibrate the food supply chain in West Virginia. It realized that the conventional food system imports food from elsewhere — and other than selling and buying at retail, West Virginians had no part in the chain. The state spends $6 billion a year on food and produces less than $1 billion in food, Gilmer said.
The seasonal vegetable market makes $5 million in revenue now, he said. But if West Virginia producers grew just 75 percent of the seasonal vegetable demand in the state, they could boost the revenue from it by $25 million. Refresh Appalachia has created a 300-acre incubator farm on a former surface coal mine that it has reclaimed.
"We are really trying to build a local food economy in the southern coal fields that provides living wage jobs, retains community wealth and also provides access to food," Gilmer said. "There’s an actual demand. This isn’t just for the people who go to Whole Foods to buy local food."
Dennison and Gilmer were accompanied by two of the young people participating in their program. Glen Wilson, of Genoa, W.Va., returned from the Marines and started the program. The 22-year-old, who has cultivated a love of woodworking in the program, including building furniture with reclaimed wood, suggested at the conference that the hundreds of depleted strip mines in the region be turned into solar installations.
"When I look at coal, coal to me is not really going anywhere," Wilson said. "My dad, he was a coal miner. And he told me: ‘Coal’s going down.’"
A call for a carbon tax
Secretary of Commerce Keith Burdette and one of his predecessors, Kelley Goes, said their focus has long been on drawing innovation to the state. "We don’t recruit extractive industries," Burdette said.
Other big ideas got a hearing at the energy conference, including proposals from both the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders campaigns to assist coal country. The state faces billions of dollars in mining reclamation as well as a bailout of the retired coal workers’ health care and pension program.
None of the Republican presidential candidates sent a representative, and neither Donald Trump nor Ted Cruz has outlined specific proposals.
Two economists, Adele Morris of the Brookings Institution and Noah Kaufman of the World Resources Institute, pushed a carbon tax, saying that in a poor state it could be a helpful alternative to regulatory restructuring.
"How are you going to fund all this transition?" asked Morris, senior fellow and policy director for the Climate and Energy Economics Project at the Brookings Institution. "I think it’s a federal role. But we’ve got, like, fumes to do it, right? I’m convinced we need tens of billions of dollars over a decade to really do this properly. To do the retiree support, to do the reclamation, to do the economic revitalization."
A tax of $30 a ton on carbon could provide the revenue needed to the places most burdened — and targeted tax cuts could help the people most burdened by higher energy costs from a carbon tax, Morris said.
"My suggestion is swap out the inefficient, sclerotic, regulatory business that’s uncertain and got litigation … and convert it into something that’s clear, that’s transparent and predictable, that gives the same or better environmental performances," Morris said, "but also brings resources to people who really need it."
Taking the future into their own hands
West Virginia’s reckoning didn’t come easy, said Joyce McConnell, West Virginia University’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, who said the focus on resiliency came out of the university’s "moral obligation" to help the state find a path forward.
The sort of honest and raw discussion they had Friday wouldn’t have been possible when they started holding the conference, McConnell said. When she first proposed a center for energy and sustainable development at the law school, it raised eyebrows in an energy-producing state.
Why "sustainability," people asked her in 2008. They’ve answered that question in 2016, but the need to transition from coal is even more urgent, McConnell said.
"The signs were already on the wall about the decline of the coal industry, the need to transition our economy away from one purely based on extraction, whether it’s coal or gas, or oil or timber, to one that is an economy that is not only knowledge-based, but is innovation-based," she said.
"Being knowledge-based alone is not enough. We need to build the knowledge and we need to move beyond it, because it’s the innovation that’s going to transform West Virginia."
People have long understood that coal as it once was is not in the state’s future, said Thomas Heywood, the president of the Discover the Real West Virginia Foundation, a private organization created in 1993 to diversify the state’s economy.
"People are not crying in their beer," he said. "They see a future."