Coal is skidding, and more is to come. What can communities do to prepare?
by Allen Best
Coal communities have shed jobs for more than a century. More are certain to be lost as the fuel loses favor because of its rising cost compared to natural gas and renewables. Plus, there are the unsavory environmental impacts.
Former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, who now heads the Center for the New Energy Economy, paints a picture of dramatic decline.
“About 45 percent of all coal generation in the 11 Western grid states will be gone by 2027 to 2028,” he said at a recent conference in Aspen. “Just 10 years from today, 45 percent.”
Many plants are approaching the end of their life expectancies of about 50 years.
“Twenty years from today, 85 to 90 percent of coal generation in the West will be gone,” he added.
This will mean fewer coal jobs. Angela Martinez, regional director of the U.S. Economic Development Administration in the Denver Regional Office, said a recent study found that Montana will lose 800 to 4,300 jobs during the next decade.
What can coal towns do? Speakers at a recent conference held in Denver geared to help coal-reliant communities said local communities pointed to the importance of broadband and to opportunities with the local food movement. Much was also said about making communities attractive places to live under the theory that the jobs will then arrive.
Do not believing any one solution will solve all problems, said consultant Erik Pages.
“Hit for singles, not home runs,” he said. “Almost all of those major quick reactions that swing for the fences fail miserably. They almost never work. What you want to do instead of creating new jobs at100 at a time is to create jobs, one at a time—and do it for 15 years straight.”
Pages, of EntreWorks Consulting, grew up in Reading, Pa., cited the Appalachian coal-mining town of Pottsville, Penn. At least it once was a coal-mining town. In the 1880s, it had more millionaires than anywhere else in the United States, a result of the rich anthracite deposits of coal.
At the start of the 20th century, 180,000 people worked the coal fields around Pottsville. Now, there are 365 are working in the coal sector there, and mostly they work in coal waste. This place of millionaires is now a place of 14,000 people, and it is one of the most economically distressed counties in Pennsylvania, said Pages.
“The people never really came to terms with what to do beyond coal—and they have paid the price for it,” he said.
Another Pennsylvania town did figure out a new trick. They convinced the family of athletic wunderkind Jim Thorpe to have him buried there, in exchange for changing the name of the town in his honor. Today, Jim Thorpe, located 100 miles east of New York City, thrives.
Rather than seek a similar Hail Mary strategy, Pages urged economic diversification through a mix of industries.
“There is a ton of research that those places that are more diverse aren’t as vulnerable to downturns,” he said. “They’re more stable, more steady, better able to survive ups and downs.”
More than coal communities should think about diversification. He reported that Cupertino, Calif., home to Apple, the technology company, is now thinking about what if something happens to Apple.
Retraining the workforce is only a small, small part of community reaction to lack of diversity. But communities should assess their opportunities. “Every community is going to do it differently,” he said, and cited the example of the Appalachian Regional Commission. That agency has found opportunities in the growth sectors of healthcare, advanced manufacturing, and renewable energy.
Places that have successfully diversified their economies tend to do their research, honestly appraising their strengths and weaknesses, taking stock of external opportunities and threats, and learning from other places.
“Make planning an on-going process,” he added. “Planning produces intentionality and it builds regional consensus, integrates new leadership, and provides accountability.”
But again, don’t expect one-stop shopping. “The temptation is to get to the next shiny object,” he said.
Is tourism a shiny thing? Not exactly. If grime is absent, income tends to be much lower. In northwest Colorado, for example, the coal-sector jobs—coal mining and power plants—pay an average $108,000 a year, plus benefits, according to a study by Yampa Valley Data Partners. Solar industry jobs in Colorado, in contrast, pay about $35,000 on average. Tourism has lots of low-paying jobs. Tourism jobs often pay even less.
“The problem in many of these places is that tourism jobs don’t pay as well,” Pages said. “I am struggling with this myself.”