In coal country, the mantra remains: jobs, jobs, jobs.

But now, apparently, with a hitch.

In polling commissioned by the Nature Conservancy and the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce to measure public support for the state’s energy economy, residents who were questioned said they are fully aware that the energy landscape is changing, changing quickly, and that what is afoot just might undermine dominance by gas and coal. They say it is time and they are ready to switch to cleaner energy sources – and new kinds of jobs.

And if those jobs are located elsewhere? That’s fine. Mountaineers said they are ready to hit the road.

Not that the state is inexperienced with outmigration and population decline, right?

The poll was conducted in late June and early July by Research America – a credible outfit. Coal country residents, some 28 counties north and south along the rocky spine of the state, were oversampled among the 400 people who were chosen for the survey, which had a 5 percent margin of error.

Five years ago, you could not talk about alternative and renewable forms of energy in mixed company, here, without inviting derision and dismissal or being ixnayed from the holiday party scene. But now, residents have stepped all the way across that line with the poll saying that West Virginians value the evolving energy transformation.

If true, we all know it came begrudgingly.

But, while folks recognize and prize the state’s proud coal heritage, they also see a nation shifting its energy focus, economy and portfolio and want to have a piece of that pie, the poll says, even suggesting our state become a leader in clean and renewable energy production.

Well, that’s a tall order and not likely to happen anytime soon because other states got a jump start while this state’s politicians were dragging their feet and appropriating millions of dollars to prop up a dying industry. Truth be told, they are still doing that.

Other states? Long ago they deployed solar arrays and built windmills by the thousands.

In a U.S. News & World Report ranking in 2019, West Virginia ended up dead last among the 50 states as measured by electricity price, power grid reliability and renewable energy usage.

Renewable energy generation? You have to be lost or traveling out of your way to run across an operational windmill farm in coal country.

I suspect some of what we read in the poll is simply admitting to the hard truths of where the markets are already leading us – and it will always be the scent of the market that we follow. There are, after all, financial reasons why so many coal-fired plants have closed and why none are under construction here in the states. No one interested in making a long-term bet will be dropping investments in those properties anytime soon – or ever. 

The handwriting is on the wall.

Coal-fired power generation capacity in the states has been in steady decline this past decade as utilities and plant owners retire coal-fired units in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve their balance sheets, and, yes, because of economic competition from gas and renewable energy resources.

Looking further ahead, a recent S&P Global Platts analysis indicates that coal-fired generation in the nation’s lower 48 is forecast to average 103 gigawatts this year, declining steadily each year to where its share of electric generation falls from 23 percent to between 15 and 16 percent in 2026.

And because we can see all of this happening right here in front of us, no one should be surprised by this poll finding: When asked if respondents agree that coal is the backbone of the state and that renewable energy is hurting mining jobs, 59 percent of coal country respondents agreed. But 73 percent of coal country respondents said that the economy is shifting away from coal and fossil fuels toward clean and renewable energy sources.

In other words, yes, the transformation is underway – and not everyone is liking it all that much.

Be that as it may, the responses indicate a willingness to deal with some inconvenient and hard truths of where we are:

λ 95 percent of coal country respondents could identify the benefits of shifting from the coal industry toward how the wind is blowing with renewables.

λ 67 percent of coal country respondents agreed that coal was not a clean energy source. 

λ 70 percent of coal country respondents said the most important thing elected officials could do to help their communities is job creation.

λ And, wait for it … 53 percent of people in coal country said things in West Virginia are currently headed in the wrong direction.

Better late than never, I suppose, to turn this car around, but boy, do we have some ground to make up.

— J. Damon Cain is editor of The Register-Herald. To reach him, email dcain@register-herald.com.

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