Clean energy can light a new path forward for former coal communities

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Over the last century, America’s coal and power plant communities leaned on geology, geography, ambition and entrepreneurial spirit to power the country and our growing economy. Those same features now position them to play key roles in new, clean energy industries.

I’ve seen that promise while traveling across the country to places like Kayenta, Ariz., where a solar facility now produces enough electricity to power 36,000 homes in the surrounding Navajo lands. Kayenta’s Navajo community was once reliant on a coal mine and generating station operated by companies in which residents lacked any real stake. Today, this community can draw both clean energy and revenues from the tribally-owned solar facility.

President Joe Biden believes that other coal and power plant communities across the country are equipped to follow similar paths. These communities have infrastructure ready-made for new energy generation opportunities like clean hydrogen, small-scale nuclear and long-term energy storage. Some feature mine lands suited for rare earth elements or critical mineral extraction underground, wells that could be used to harness geothermal energy and surface areas for new businesses or clean energy projects. 

Most importantly, they all have workforces with the skills needed to bring it all to life — and, as I’ve heard through conversations with former coal miners in West Virginia, the desire to work in new jobs with a long future.

A year ago, the Department of Energy and nine other federal agencies within the White House Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities issued a report to President Biden outlining this potential. That report is guiding our efforts to unlock the inherent advantages in these communities.

Since the president took office, our administration has awarded over $3.3 billion in existing federal funds to the communities we’ve identified as hardest hit by coal mine and power plant closures. The Department of Energy is investing tens of millions of dollars into next-generation energy projects ranging from converting former gas plants into hydrogen facilities to extracting critical materials from legacy coal for battery production, harnessing geothermal energy from oil and gas wells, and beyond. Through our new Communities LEAP initiative, we are partnering with 23 communities across the country to advance clean energy solutions, many of them fossil energy communities on the edge of the clean energy transition. And back in March, I joined U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, and White House leaders in Charleston, W.Va., to announce a collaboration with the AFL-CIO that will bring industry and labor leaders together to build a workforce ready to run a domestic battery supply chain.

There’s far more to come thanks to President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which invests billions of dollars into new clean energy projects that will use the mighty infrastructure and skilled workforce of today’s fossil energy communities.

Our $8 billion in funding for clean hydrogen projects requires us to figure out how to repurpose existing natural gas infrastructure. Our $750 million manufacturing grant program prioritizes proposals for former coal plant and mine communities. Our $7 billion battery manufacturing and recycling program grants ask that we find ways to leverage the skills of former fossil energy workers. There’s also $2.5 billion for advanced nuclear reactors — including a model we can site on top of a retired coal plant — and over $10 billion for carbon capture, direct air capture and reducing industrial emissions.

These projects will create jobs that will be in demand for decades. They’ll turbocharge economic growth in the areas where they’re based. And they’ll open new possibilities for coal, power plant and other fossil energy communities to begin exporting clean energy products across the country and world. 

President Biden is calling on Congress to further help companies and resourceful communities claim their stake by offering tax credits and other incentives to ease the jump into new energy markets. These will deliver more jobs, lower energy bills, cleaner air and water, and huge incentives for bringing manufacturing back to America, so we can build these technologies right here at home.

That’s the story in Kayenta. The closure of the local coal mine may have cost the surrounding communities jobs in the short term, but the future is bright. In the years ahead, Navajo Nation plans to expand their solar generating capacity by a factor of nearly fourteen, to roughly 750 MW — and sell much of it on the grid, bringing far more revenues and jobs to the community along the way. 

Far more coal and power plant communities have the resources to do the same, building out markets for new clean energy projects. President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure law and his broader economic agenda will help them put those resources to work.

Jennifer M. Granholm is the 16th United States secretary of Energy.

Tags Biden; Joe Biden; clean energy jobs clean energy transition Climate change coal mines economy Energy policy Jennifer Granholm Rare earth elements

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