The Appalachian region encompasses a large region of the United States stretching from the Southern counties of New York all the way to Northern Alabama and Mississippi. This region is historically known for its coal mining practices but is also well-positioned to encourage the shift to a clean energy future.
Over the past few decades, there has been a decrease in the demand for coal, resulting in a significant loss of jobs within the coal mining industry. Employment in the coal mining industry in Appalachia has declined 54 percent from 2005 to 2020, and over the same period coal production has dropped by 65 percent. Traditionally, there have been higher poverty rates in the mining counties of Appalachia compared to the non-mining counties, but in recent years poverty has substantially risen in both groups. Many counties in the Appalachian region are expecting economic distress, but Central Appalachia tends to have the lowest wages and highest poverty rates.
However, the clean energy industry is well-positioned to relieve some of the economic stress felt by people living in this region. America’s nonmetropolitan, rural areas employ nearly 13 percent of the clean energy workforce, or about 400,000 people. In 21 states, rural areas accounted for more than 25 percent of the state’s clean energy workforce, including North Carolina where 25.6 percent of the state’s clean energy workforce is in rural areas.
Renewable energy projects improve the economic conditions of the communities they are included in. For example, the Amazon wind farm in eastern North Carolina provides landowners and farmers with a steady source of income of $6,000 per turbine, per year; this translates into, on average, landowners with 2 turbines will increasing their annual income by over 20 percent each year. Additionally, these clean energy technologies create permanent job positions to support the ongoing operations of the technologies, temporary jobs for the local area to aid with construction and planning, and brings in additional tax revenue for local communities.
Communities in the Appalachian region are similarly impacted by the economic benefits of clean energy, such as Buncombe County in Western North Carolina. The Asheville, North Carolina metropolitan area has nearly 6,358 clean energy jobs representing 3.15 percent of the overall metro employment. NCSEA member Pine Gate Renewables headquartered in Asheville works closely with the communities of their solar projects; their large-scale solar projects lead to increased activity at local hotels and restaurants, increased demand for local heavy machinery rental companies, thus resulting in more revenue to local governments. Furthermore, the University of North Carolina at Asheville plans to be carbon neutral in under thirty years; jobs will be created to sustain the university’s efforts which will continue to bring in money for the local economy.
Smaller, more rural areas in Appalachia are benefited by clean energy as well. Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina has been teaching students and members of the community the importance of clean energy for over forty years. The University’s Appalachian Energy Center conducts a wide range of activities aimed to help communities become more energy efficient, mostly through outreach. The center leads training programs for construction employees on energy efficiency building designs and offers workshops targeted towards sub-contractors, realtors, and financial institutions to promote a more energy efficient community.
The clean energy industry has the potential to revitalize communities that are currently negatively impacted by the coal industry decline. There is still work that needs to be done to further encourage clean energy developments in this region, but current projects happening in Western North Carolina and other parts of the Appalachian region display the economic and social impacts the industry has on communities and local economies.