The miners' statue in Grundy. Photo by Lakin Keene.

In November 2020, while much of the country was consumed with the presidential election just past, the mayors of eight cities from Pittsburgh to Louisville were focused on the future. Led by Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto, they laid out what they called a “Marshall Plan for Middle America.”

It called for a $600 billion investment – in both public and private funds – over the next 10 years to build a new economy in the Ohio River Valley. Specifically, these Rust Belt mayors laid out a plan to convert their fossil fuel-based economy into a green energy corridor – think Silicon Valley, just for renewable energy.

Their rationale: A study by the University of Pittsburgh had found that “the Ohio River Valley stands to lose 100,000 jobs as the fossil-fuel economy continues to decline in the face of superior, cost-competitive renewable energy development.” If renewable energy is going to eliminate those jobs, why not take action to make sure the renewable energy jobs of the future are in the same place?

“Renewable sources of power are proving less expensive, and fossil fuel companies are increasingly dependent on federal subsidies to survive,” the mayors wrote in a commentary in The Washington Post. “Couldn’t these subsidies be strategically shifted to invest in a green economy that keeps these largely suburban and rural jobs but transitions them, with federal support, into new industries that will grow in the 21st century?”

I always thought that was a pretty sound strategy – and a pretty far-sighted plan, made even more interesting by the fact that it was bubbling up from mayors and not being pushed on them by some higher level of government. We’ve seen in Southwest Virginia (and the rest of coal-mining Appalachia) what happens when those coal jobs disappear and aren’t replaced by anything. When I was with The Roanoke Times, I wrote that community leaders on this side of the Alleghenies should try to emulate that Middle America plan to build our own renewable energy economy. I specifically proposed a summit of government leaders from Lynchburg to Lee County – Lynchburg because of the presence of the BWXT Nuclear Operations Group, Lee County because that’s in coal country, and the alliteration works well with the geography. Lynchburg to Lee County would seem to form the basis of a whole corridor, smaller but still analogous to the Pittsburgh-to-Louisville corridor that those Ohio River Valley mayors were talking up. (The others were from Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton and Youngstown, Ohio, and Huntington and Morgantown, West Virginia.)

Alas, nobody took me up on my suggestion.

Now I have a different platform, and a new rationale for making the same pitch. The so-called Inflation Reduction Act that Congress passed and President Joe Biden recently signed may or may not reduce inflation but it might well do something else: encourage clean energy companies to locate in coal communities. The sprawling bill has been called a climate bill and much of it is. The new law has a lot of moving parts, and Republicans have done a good job of calling attention to the parts they don’t like, such as hiring more people at the Internal Revenue Service. The part I keep coming back to is this: The law sets aside $4 billion in tax credits for clean energy companies that locate in an “energy community,” defined as as any place that in the past 22 years has had coal mining, or oil and gas drilling, or has had a coal plant retired in the past 22 years. That obviously brings in all of Virginia’s coal counties, plus some more: Buckingham County qualifies because Dominion Energy converted the coal-burning Bremo Bluff station to natural gas in 2014 and then closed it altogether in 2019. Giles County qualifies because Appalachian Power closed its coal-fired plant at Glen Lyn in 2015. Mecklenburg County qualifies because Dominion shut down the coal-fired plant in Clarksville in 2019. Halifax County will eventually qualify. The coal-fired plant in Clover – a joint project of Dominion Energy and the Old Dominion Electric Cooperative – could close in 2025. (Disclosure: Dominion is one of our donors, but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy. You can be one of our 1,300-plus donors and have no say in news decisions, too.) There are localities in other parts of Virginia that qualify, too, but my focus here is Southwest and Southside.

The bottom line: We have a bunch of Virginia counties where companies could make use of this $4 billion worth of tax credits. These are all counties that ought to be raising their hands, trying to get the attention of whatever clean energy companies are out there.

And that brings me back to my original idea.

Somebody ought to be organizing some event designed to heighten national awareness of this part of Virginia. There are certainly other ways for localities to recruit companies – we have whole agencies dedicated to economic development and I don’t pretend to know better than them how they should do their jobs. I do, though, claim to know a little bit about marketing and media coverage and public relations work. If economic development is largely an “inside” game, I’m more focused on the “outside” game because that’s what I know best. Here’s an opportunity to create an event to tell the world (and any green energy investors): Hey, we’re here and we want you to set up shop here.

So, I say again: Local governments from Lynchburg to Lee County ought to be banding together to create such an event – a summit of sorts. Not all those localities qualify for this tax credit, but the Lynchburg-to-Lee County formulation lets us make a larger case. After all, there are parts of that region that have already staked a claim to the renewable energy field: The New Institute in Martinsville is now training people for the wind industry. Virginia’s solar energy boom is taking place primarily in Southside; that’s not necessarily creating a lot of jobs beyond the initial construction but the solar farms are there, nonetheless.

The InvestSWVA economic development group based in Bristol has already done a good job of pitching Southwest Virginia as a place that is well-suited to get a piece of the wind energy supply chain. I wrote earlier that there may be lots of places in the country that could do the same, but the marketing advantage would seem to go to places that make a big deal about wanting those jobs. Somebody’s going to get them; why not us? Same thing here, only more so. Here we have some counties that are connected to a $4 billion pot of money. I’m tempted to say this is like being at the end of an economic development rainbow.

So let’s imagine what this kind of summit might look like. The point wouldn’t be to just talk to ourselves, but to talk to potential investors. Austin, Texas, has made its South by Southwest business-and-arts conference a certifiable “thing.” Think of this as the South by Southwest of renewable energy. That means we need someone with “convening power” who could invite the movers and shakers in the clean energy world – and get a sufficient number of them to come to make the whole thing worthwhile. So who has that kind of convening power? Let me throw out some possibilities.

A governor always has convening power; Gov. Glenn Youngkin could easily call a clean energy summit to showcase Southwest Virginia. As a former executive at a private equity company, he really ought to have connections in the business world. Yes, there are some political difficulties involved – the new law that creates all these incentives was a purely Democratic bill and here I’m suggesting a Republican leverage that for his own constituents. Oh, well. Youngkin says under his administration Virginia is “open for business” and this is ultimately business. He’s still free to criticize all the other things in the legislation he doesn’t like.

Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, could do this, too. Most of the localities I’ve mentioned are in his district, although a House member doesn’t have quite the convening power of a governor. Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell County, could join in: Some counties in his district qualifiy because they once had coal-fired power plants. Virginia’s two senators – Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine – could do this. After all, they backed this legislation so it’s certainly in their interest to call attention to how it might benefit Southwest Virginia.

Or, here’s a radical idea: They could all do this. What kind of statement would it send if both Democrats and Republicans who have some claim to representing Southwest Virginia joined together to create such an event? I can guarantee you that would get attention, no matter what the subject. For that matter, some configuration of state legislators and/or local elected officials could join together to make this happen – although, again, the convening power of a chairman of a board of supervisors is a lot less than the convening power of a governor, and that’s ultimately what matters here. We need someone or several someones who have the capacity to attract important investors.

If our politicians can’t or won’t do this, there are institutions that could give this a go – Virginia Tech, for instance, or the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Or Emory & Henry College, which wants to position itself as “the flagship higher education institution of Middle Appalachia.” Or, I stress again, some alliance of all these people and institutions.

I’m less concerned about who convenes and more concerned about who could be persuaded to come. There’s a show business aspect to this; we’re trying to create a reputation here that Southwest Virginia isn’t rooted in place, it’s embracing the future – that of all the communities across the country that qualify for this tax credit, it’s out in front of all of them.

As for that Marshall Plan for Middle America idea? I can’t find any evidence that much is happening. Peduto, the Pittsburgh mayor who was its most prominent champion, lost the Democratic primary last year – he apparently wasn’t considered liberal enough by many Democratic voters in the Steel City – and is now out of office. The Twitter account for the Marshall Plan for Middle America has been silent since April. The idea of transforming an entire fossil fuel region into a renewable energy capital still seems sound but there doesn’t seem anyone promoting it at the moment. This seems a vacancy that Southwest Virginia is well-positioned to fill – if only someone would make it happen. Who’s willing?

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.