Clean Energy Corps

A Benefit for the Economy and the Environment

By Linda Brinson

The Clean Energy Corps has the potential to be an economic as well as an environmental boon for the Appalachian region.

At the national level, the Clean Energy Corps is still a proposal, but many people are working to make sure that it becomes a reality. Some states, including Kentucky, are moving ahead with their Clean Energy Corps initiatives.

The national proposal got a boost March 10 when President Obama tapped Van Jones to become a White House “special advisor.” Jones is the founder of Green For All, a green jobs advocacy group, which is one of the primary members of the Clean Energy Corps Working Group. Other members include the Center for American Progress, Center on Wisconsin Strategy, Energy Action Coalition and Laborers’ International Union of North America.

In February, that working group, with the support of more than 80 labor, environmental, civic and policy organizations, laid out its Clean Energy Corps (CEC) proposal. The idea is to move toward clean energy, combating global warming in a way that also helps local economies by creating jobs and providing training and service opportunities. The CEC would help the environment, help people move out of poverty, and help communities develop sustainable economies based on clean energy.

The proposal is designed to build on the Obama administration’s energy goals and to channel billions of dollars in green energy provisions in the economic stimulus package where they can do the most good. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar spoke of those goals March 1 to the 12,000 young people gathered at Power Shift 2009 in Washington. The current “moment of crisis,” Salazar said, is also “a moment of opportunity for all of us to change the world.” America must move away from dependence on fossil fuels, he said, to ensure security, to reverse global warming and to build “a new green energy economy.”

One of the major thrusts of the CEC would provide young people opportunities to get involved in service and training similar to AmeriCorps. Passed recently by the U.S. House of Representatives, this effort would work on the local levels largely through existing nonprofits, universities, and local and state governments.

Many who attended Power Shift are lobbying Congress to make various aspects of the CEC a reality.
Sandra Diaz, Appalachian Voices’ national field coordinator and a Green For All fellow, describes the CEC as similar to the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. The long-range goal is to expand the green energy jobs initiatives in the stimulus package into a permanent program, and to provide lasting “green collar” jobs as well as low-wage service-learning jobs.

Appalachia should benefit, Diaz said, because there is a determined effort to direct a significant share of the green jobs money to the communities that need it most: rural and impoverished areas that have been disproportionately hurt by the fossil fuel economy. “We like to call them energy sacrifice zones,” Diaz said. They include states such as West Virginia and Kentucky where coal is mined, and states such as North Carolina where it is burned widely in power plants.

With its emphasis on renewable fuels, the CEC should help Appalachian communities make the transition from coal to more sustainable economies, Diaz said. It should help the fight against the mountaintop removal mining that has been so detrimental to the region, she said. “MTR is a jobs killer,” she said, because it employs fewer people than traditional mining, but even more so because the blasting and pollution make the area unfit for any other industry to move in. As an example of what might happen, Diaz cited an effort in West Virginia to block a proposed mountaintop removal mine on Coal River Mountain – to instead build a wind farm there that would provide 200 construction jobs and 50 permanent jobs.

Such projects are among longer-term goals. The primary immediate thrust of the CEC is weatherizing buildings, especially low-income homes. That’s a natural target: It benefits low-income people by saving them money; it puts local people to work; and it helps the environment because buildings account for about 40 percent of climate-changing greenhouse gases.

Kentucky has emerged as a national leader. Jonathan Miller, the secretary of the Kentucky Finance and Administration Cabinet, began working on the weatherization project last fall. In February, Kentucky became the first state to use the Clean Energy Corps name locally and began a pilot project using state and private funds. Now it will expand its efforts with federal stimulus money.

Staffers with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, part of a coalition supporting the effort, said that it is already becoming apparent that while there will be a role for volunteers, there is a need for training for specific skills. Efforts are underway to work with the state’s technical and community colleges to help prepare people for what should be lasting jobs.

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