Story by Julie Johnson
Appalachia has been hit hard by the economic downturn, but communities of the region are collaborating to find a way to rebound.
Enter the JOBS project-a nonprofit organization proposing a sustainable solution. The program calls for a number of small-scale biomass and wind power generation facilities in the most impoverished areas of West Virginia.
In a draft of the project prepared for President Obama’s Council on Environmental Quality, JOBS developers explain that the project will be community owned, meaning that ownership of the facilities will be distributed to a number of community investors and shareholders, excluding commercial developers as primary owners.
“This model stimulates small-scale entrepreneurship and encourages local economic diversification,”said Jenny Hudson, one of the project’s founders.
One of the proposed projects is a 2.4 megawatt biofuel power generation facility in Mingo County, W.Va. This facility will become a model for the burgeoning field of sustainable technology, and be the first renewable energy power facility in the Appalachian Community Biopower Association.
The proposed biomass facility will generate low emission power using a recycled substance- secondary timber residue- a left over byproduct of commercial woodworking. Though it usually finds its way into landfills, the substance is ideal for renewable power generation.
Researchers at the JOBS project are collaborating with MATRIC, a West Virginia-based technology company, to find a viable way to use a firing process called pyrolisis. This would burn the timber residue at such a high heat that it would create biofuel, to power the grid, and biogas that could be captured and used to power the facility itself.
“The goal of this facility is not to maximize the amount of wattage it can produce or to monopolize the distribution of power,”said Chris Shepherd, policy director of the JOBS Project and a native West Virginian. “It is meant to stay small and efficient, leaving ample opportunity for other similar facilities to arise and fulfill the remaining energy needs of the county, providing still more sustainable job opportunities for county residents.”
Earl Long, renewable energy developer of the JOBS project,is helping to develop a Monroe County wind farm. “Mother Nature’s got the coal on back order for the next few million years,” Long says, “A community-owned, renewable energy model is the way to go; people have a vested interest in taking care of what’s theirs.”
Unemployment and poverty have long plagued the communities hardest hit by Appalachia’s extraction industries. Jobs have declined significantly in the last two decades. The West Virginia Coal Association reports that between 1985 and 2005 the number of coal miners in the region declined from 122,102 to 53,509. Mechanization, mountaintop removal and other surface mining techniques have reduced the need for employees and miners displaced by this transformation in mining practices have scarce other regional industry in which to apply their skills.
“If we are to transition from a carbon-reliant economy to a carbon-neutral economy,” said Eric Mathis, Smart-Tech coordinator of the JOBS Project, “we have to figure out how to mitigate the employment impact to the miners whose work helped bring America to the modern age.”
The JOBS project proposes equipping the facility with technology similar to that of traditional coal-fired power plants to allow displaced workers to easily transfer their existing skill sets. Workers will be encouraged to provide feedback to help improve the facility. They will also be encouraged to expand their skills through educational partnerships with West Virginia University, empowering workers to take an active role in their employment.
“It is time to devote new innovation and ingenuity to energy policy and blaze new trails,” said West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd. “…such energy will produce spin-offs that create jobs, improve life and secure our energy future.”