In 1957, Austin, Texas, was smaller than the Roanoke Valley is today and, like much of the rest of Texas, saw its economy go boom and bust depending on oil prices.
Austin, at least, had the state capital to rely on – government never goes out of business – but this was an unsatisfactory situation for some community leaders. That year the Austin Area Economic Development Foundation commissioned a study that said the region should focus on attracting manufacturers of electric and scientific equipment. Manufacturing of any kind was not a major force in Austin at the time, so this recommendation might have struck some as unusual – or futuristic. A decade later, IBM opened a factory for electric typewriters in Austin. Then came a Texas Instruments plant in 1969 – the company was cutting-edge then, having just invented a revolutionary device known as a handheld calculator. Motorola arrived in 1974. Fast forward to today: Austin now is a recognized global technology capital.
That did not happen accidentally. Austin’s status as the Silicon Hills, as some call this part of the Texas Hill Country, can all be traced back to that 1957 study and the actions that flowed from it.
Why does this matter to us? Because last week it was announced that a study is underway to determine whether Southwest Virginia could become a center for manufacturing wind turbines or any of their 8,000 (!) parts. (For all the details, see this story by Cardinal’s Megan Schnabel.)
Soon after we published her story, I heard from someone who pooh-poohed the whole idea. The world is full of critics. However, we know one thing for certain: These wind turbines will be made somewhere. Why not here? The U.S. Department of Energy says that “more wind energy was installed in 2020 than any other energy source, accounting for 42% of new U.S. capacity.” The department also forecasts that the amount of wind energy will double by 2030 and nearly quadruple by 2050. We in Virginia don’t have a good sense of this because we are one of the few states that doesn’t have any on-shore wind – Grace Mamon reported on that here. However, in Iowa, 57% of the state’s power now comes from wind. In four other states – Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota and North Dakota – the figure tops 30%. (If you’re scoring this politically, notice that all those states are quite Republican so their conversion to wind energy isn’t the result of green energy politics, just good, old-fashioned practicality.) Virginia’s not in Wind Alley like those states are, but the Center for the Advancement of Sustainable Energy at James Madison University says parts of western Virginia have sufficient wind to be economically feasible.
Whether Virginia ever has on-shore wind or not (we already have off-shore wind, with the promise of more), other states will have wind and we come back to the essential question that the Southwest Virginia study will address: What would it take to get some of that wind turbine manufacturing here? There’s already one wind turbine manufacturer headed to Portsmouth. What about a little further west? The skeptic who emailed me suggested Southwest Virginia doesn’t have enough natural gas to be a major manufacturing center. Don’t know. Not my area of expertise. Presumably that’s something the study will tell us, eh?
Instead of jumping ahead to conclusions that haven’t been reached yet, I’d like to focus on something else, something that communities beyond Southwest Virginia could benefit from: the intentionality of Southwest even asking the question. Maybe there’s no particular reason why these parts should be manufactured there, but, as Woody Allen once said, 80% of life is simply showing up. Southwest Virginia here is showing up which, if it winds up pursuing this, will give it an advantage over all the places that aren’t showing up.
That, of course, raises the question of why they’re not. Future generations will suffer from their inaction.
Many economies – even many strong ones – have happened accidentally. Silicon Valley is the prime example. Nobody mapped that out or planned it. Silicon Valley just happened, the confluence of a lot of happy accidents dating back to the late 1800s when the port at San Francisco made it a western center for the telegraph industry. Others, though, are more intentional. In the 1980s, Pittsburgh saw its signature steel industry collapse. “In an eight-year span, from 1979 to 1987, the Pittsburgh region lost 133,000 manufacturing jobs,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports. Community leaders set out to change that – not by trying to bring back steel, which was gone, but by creating a new economy. Today, Pittsburgh is regarded as something of a poster child for cities trying to create a new economy – in Pittsburgh’s case, health care and technology. Pittsburgh, of course, has a lot of similarities to Virginia’s coalfields – both in Appalachia, both having seen traditional industries wither away. The only difference is one of scale – and Pittsburgh having a lot more universities. And Pittsburgh started its rebuilding work a lot earlier.
Closer to home, Danville is another community that has been very intentional about building a new economy. It hit rock bottom just after the turn of the 21st century when textiles collapsed. More recently, it’s been trying to establish itself as a center for advanced manufacturing. (Amy Trent had a story about that here.) We see the Roanoke and New River valleys becoming very intentional about life sciences, and the New River Valley becoming very intentional about autonomous vehicles. Not all those were created out of someone’s imagination; they built upon some foundation already there. Building a wind turbine manufacturing industry in Southwest Virginia might seem fantastical but it’s not: A lot of skills and trades that were involved in coal mining might well be transferable – coal mining isn’t about hacking at rock with a pick-axe, it’s about mechanics and electricians and welders and fabricators and you name it. That’s one reason why those jobs were so well-paid and why they are so difficult to replace as coal goes away.
Last year, the outgoing mayor of Pittsburgh looked even further down the road: He and a coalition of other mayors in the Ohio River Valley, all the way to Louisville, proposed that the region try to establish itself as a manufacturing center for the renewable energy industry. The mayors saw the likely loss of 100,000 jobs in the region that are tied to fossil fuels; why not get ahead of things and try to make sure the growing renewable energy industry is based there? I suggested then that localities on this side of the Appalachians should take their cue from that and try to do the same thing; I proposed a summit of localities from Lynchburg to Lee County. I heard nothing. I still think that’s a good idea. At least, here’s part of that region that’s already doing something. A side note: Here’s a golden, or perhaps green, opportunity for our new governor-to-be. Glenn Youngkin says he wants a “rip-roaring” Virginia economy; he’s also politically indebted to this part of the state, where turnout surged on his behalf. He could convene such a summit and more formally, and emphatically, declare that the region is open for business, specifically the renewable energy business.
There’s a moral case to be made here, of course: The economy, left to its own devices, is already undermining coal as renewables become cheaper but through our policies (such as the Clean Economy Act), we are intentionally – there’s that word again – accelerating its demise. To me, that’s an argument for making sure that the jobs that replace coal are in coal country, otherwise we’re telling a whole section of the country there’s no longer a place for them in the economy, which is another way of saying there’s no place for them in society. That’s a fine argument for an opinion writer to make; it’s far harder to make happen in the real world where companies make decisions based on the bottom line. Acme Wind Turbine Inc. has to satisfy its shareholders, who probably care a lot more about their dividends than whether out-of-work coal miners in some place they’ve never been can easily transition to another job. But as governor, Youngkin will soon become responsible for trying to make that happen. Best of all, here’s somebody with a plan.
Is it a good plan? It seems so to me but the important part is that there’s a plan at all. I am reminded of the advice laid down by Gen. George Patton: “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”
The real question is how many communities don’t have plans at all and why not?