For generations, getting a job in Central Appalachia has almost always translated into “going into the mines.” The coal industry has dominated the economies in West Virginia, Kentucky, and parts of Ohio for 150 years. While that hasn’t changed completely, a young organization has dedicated itself to keeping the region’s economy tied to energy production—but the kind that doesn’t cause unchecked carbon emission, mine cave-ins, or black lung. The JOBS Project promotes “renewable energy as a way to create long-term, good paying jobs.”
As you might expect, people in the region are a bit skeptical, so JOBS decided to head directly into “the belly of the beast,” so to speak; they’ve installed their first solar system in Williamson, West Virginia, aka the self-proclaimed “heart of the billion dollar coalfields.” Installed by program trainees, many of whom are unemployed or underemployed mine workers, the 11-kilowatt system went up on the roof of Williamson Family Care Center, a local medical practice.
Nope, a system that size doesn’t represent a complete changeover in the economics of energy in the region. It is highly symbolic, though. As JOBS Program spokesperson Nick Getzen told the AP, “This is the first sign for a lot of folks that this is real, and that it’s real technology, and they can have it in their communities.”
The system also represents real employment potential. JOBS trainees earned $45 an hour for the three days of work, and the company overseeing the installation, Mountain View Solar & Wind, has grown enough to employ “15 full-time workers, five part-timers and a network of about a dozen electricians, plumbers, roofers and general contractors who do installations.”
The Williamson installation is also just one facet of the JOBS focus. While they don’t see coal going away (and, given their location, don’t really want it to), they’ve created a framework for integrating renewable energy into communities that have long relied on fossil fuel. Their plan includes not only creating jobs, but also educational, development and market programs that highlight the multiple benefits of clean energy for the region.
No doubt there will be uphill battles ahead; coal is deeply rooted in the region’s culture. But The JOBS Project’s focus on economic empowerment for individuals and communities strikes me as a winner. I’ll be interested to see what they do next.
Know of similar initiatives in regions dominated by fossil fuels? Tell us about them…
Article by Jeff McIntire-Strasburg, founder and editor of sustainablog, a long-running green blog and product comparison engine that sells everything you’ll need to cut your own power use: from LED light bulbs to energy-efficient appliances.