The Writing on the Wall

I want to pull together three threads from the news in the past week.

I live in Calhoun County, WV, in a rural area that is literally dying.  The Hur Herald reported last week that the 2010 Census shows that, between 2002 and 2008, Calhoun County produced 874 live births for every 1000 deaths in the county.

On Monday, the ever-excellent Ry Rivard reported in the Charleston Daily Mail that the CEO of Alpha Resources, already a large WV coal producer which hopes to merge with Massey Energy on Wednesday, says that he expects “a sharp drop in Appalachian coal production” to continue.  Rivard cites US Dept. of Energy’s Energy Information Administration as stating that “the [central Appalachian] region is expected to produce 188 million tons a year. By 2015, the agency predicts the region will be producing only 112 million tons a year, a decline of 40 percent.”

Finally, I saw this article in Monday’s New York times which describes a rural community’s renewable renaissance this way:

In this sparsely populated landscape south of the Columbia River Gorge, annual checks for that amount are local residents’ share of a windfall brought by the growing wind energy industry. In an area otherwise dominated by wheat farms, hundreds of 300-foot wind turbines now generate electricity and cash.

“Wind is the only thing that is going to save rural Oregon,” said Judge Gary Thompson of Sherman County Court, “especially since all the timber is gone and the sawmills and all that are closing down. I think what it is is a breath of fresh air.”

The people of Sherman County did not get this way by selling out to out of state interests the way the economic and political leaders of West Virginia have done for 150 years.  Here’s what they did:

A corporation, Praise the Wind, served as the vehicle for northern farmers looking to attract wind developers. After securing the rights to blocks of land, Praise the Wind negotiated leases, building in provisions like weed control, fencing and penalties for crop damage. The corporation now manages payments and acts as a liaison with the wind companies.

“The opportunity for wind development is going to be what helps agriculture continue in these agricultural areas,” said Cheryl Woods, Praise the Wind’s chief financial officer, “because it’s getting more and more expensive to farm and the margin is getting narrower and narrower.” Ms. Woods said annual royalty payments of between $5,500 and $7,800 per turbine have saved some farms.

The turbines have also meant more jobs, officials say. The Columbia Gorge Community College has retooled its electrical engineering department into a renewable energy technician program that has trained 135 students from Sherman and surrounding counties. Judge Thompson said the industry was now Sherman County’s largest employer.

Sherman County, OR is an ideal place for land based wind power because of the extremely windy Columbia River Gorge.  Few places in WV match Sherman County’s unique combination of extreme wind resources and proximity to existing transmission lines.  There is still tremendous potential for WV renewable energy production, both from wind and sun from small scale home and farm based production.  The small scale of this development can create many business opportunities for farmers and local investors with the right direction from the WV Legislature, the Governor and the Public Service Commission.

So far, we have only seen state officials clinging desperately to coal’s death spiral.  There is whining about high electric bills and crackpot suggestions of rate caps, but no one wants to create real solutions.  Here is the reality: WV is past peak coal, as the CEO of what will be WV’s largest coal company clearly states.  APCO’s CEO has also clearly stated that coal is the reason for WV’s rising electric rates.

So we can sit by and watch rural WV literally die, as we are in Calhoun County, or we can trust our own resources and invest for the future in renewable energy.

Senate President Tomblin could appoint a new WV PSC Commissioner in June to establish clear leadership to rebuild WV’s energy economy on a renewable footing.  Or he could go with the status quo and continue WV’s energy death spiral tied to a fuel resource that is rapidly running out.

Oh, don’t think that natural gas will save WV.  We’ve been producing gas in Calhoun County for over one hundred years.  Booms come and booms go, but we still have one of the worst local economies in the state.

Cross posted on Coalition for Reliable Power.