Letter to the Editor: Coal an unstable foundation for Southwestern Virginia's economy
-Written by Dakota Thomas, a senior at the University of Virginia's College at Wise, in Wise County, Virginia
One can’t make it ten feet down the street of Wise without seeing a “Friends of Coal” sticker on a bumper or a sign espousing that “We keep the lights on.” And while coal is the driving force behind our economy today, people of the area’s minds are captivated by it as though the coal industry can do no wrong. But the coal industry is above all else a business. They make a profit by developing new, cheaper (read: less human dependent and more robotic) technology, or by securing legislative outcomes that favor them rather than good policy.
An example of policy problems includes the fact that over the next two years, the Dominion Virginia Power Company stands to earn approximately $76 million in bonuses for buying renewable energy credits, although the company produces almost no renewable energy. The 2012 General Assembly considered a bill allowing solar energy installations. Although Dominion wasn’t threatened by this legislation, the company used its clout to kill the bill while it was in committee. Similarly, Washington and Lee received a cease-and-desist letter from Dominion when it sought solar panels.
A few years earlier, the General Assembly passed a bill in 2007 to encourage the development of clean energy sources such as offshore wind. In essence, it called for power companies in Virginia to produce a certain amount of renewable energy (the Renewable Portfolio Standard). Dominion’s lobbyists hamstrung the bill by persuading legislators to make the goals voluntary, accompanied by a bonus for meeting them. Dominion is earning $76 million in bonuses over the next two years by using old energy from old, out-of-state plants.
I recall an initiative a few years ago to put wind turbines on the mountains near my home in Bluefield, Va. There were massive protests about “stealing coal jobs” (as if creating new jobs in renewable energy somehow gets rid of jobs in coal), but the most surprising complaint was aesthetic. “Wind turbines,” they said, “would make our mountains ugly.” Now call me stupid, but I think mountaintop removal and strip mines already did that, but no one raised a word of protest when it was “coal jobs.”
The other, more serious problem that matters even to those not fond of renewable energy and not so concerned with the environment, are the economics of a non-renewable resource. As I mentioned earlier, the coal industry is a business, not a charity.
Coal itself is a non-renewable resource. There’s not something down there that keeps making more of it. What people of this area don’t seem to realize is the implications of this: our entire economy is run on something that, very soon, will be all gone. Unless there is an undiscovered vein of coal somewhere in the region, the moment it becomes cheaper to mine in Montana or wherever, all those coal companies will be gone. And they’ll take all our jobs with them. Southwest Virginia will be left singing the blues. We need to diversify the economy now, before running out of coal becomes an issue. Clean energy initiatives like wind and solar power can help with that.