Members of the Building Resilient Economies in Coal Communities initiative toured the DELTA Lab site near Appalachia. Photo courtesy of Will Payne.

Southwest Virginia put on a show of energy and economic development projects last week for 20 officials representing coal communities in 10 states ranging from Montana and Minnesota to West Virginia and Wyoming.

All are members of the Building Resilient Economies in Coal Communities initiative launched by the National Association of Counties last November, and each is looking for ways to revitalize and diversify their own local economy.

The group spent Wednesday through Friday in Southwest Virginia, which was chosen for the first of four “peer exchange site visits” that will take place over the next two years. The trips will be hosted by coalition communities and will be designed to highlight programs and projects underway for economic diversification.

The visit was hosted by InvestSWVA, a public-private economic development initiative whose director, Will Payne, is a member of the initiative.

“It’s an honor to host leaders representing 20 coal communities from all around the country who are equally focused on diversifying their region’s economies,” Payne said. “I’m proud that we could showcase what Southwest Virginia is getting right.”

On Thursday, the group traveled by bus to the coalfields to tour some of the projects underway. The first stop was Lonesome Pine Industrial Park near Wise, which is a former coal mine site that is home to the Wise Solar Project.

When asked if there were questions, the first was about the region’s interest in becoming home to a small modular nuclear reactor, or SMR. The question came from Marc Kiehna, a commissioner from Randolph County, Illinois.

Kiehna was told about Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s statement last October that he wanted to put an SMR in Southwest Virginia within the next 10 years to bring clean energy to the state and jobs to an area that needs it. Local officials promised to share lots of information on the subject.

In an interview later, Kiehna said that a large power plant in his county is shutting down in 2025, which will result in the loss of a lot of jobs and tax revenue.

“I’m here this morning hearing these energy experts talk about how I might replace those revenues, how we can get a stronger tax base by putting solar or small scale nuclear in, and it makes a whole lot of sense to me,” he said.

“I’m hopeful I’ll come away with some information that I can take back home and let people learn about the cutting edge of what’s happening. I’m here to learn about what’s happening in other parts of the United States in regard to coal economies that are struggling.”

The second stop was the Energy DELTA Lab site near the town of Appalachia. It is an energy testbed focused on using former coal mine land for the commercialization and deployment of innovative energy technologies.

The focus was on the lab’s “portfolio approach” to developing projects that are complementary, including solar, wind, hydrogen, pumped storage hydrogen, data centers and SMRs.

Payne; Will Clear, deputy director of the Virginia Department of Energy; and others from the Energy Department talked about the possibilities for the 65,000-acre scenic site, which has one owner.

Daniel Kestner, economic development manager for the Department of Energy, said he often acts as a “matchmaker” between landowners and developers as they search for ways to repurpose the land.

One huge asset the area has is an abundance of underground mine pools filled with billions of gallons of clean water that can be used in a variety of ways, including for industrial manufacturing and a pumped storage hydro energy project, according to Kestner.

Gabe Pena, a BRECC member who is on the town council in Fayetteville, West Virginia, said he was struck by the regional collaboration that’s taking place between local and state government and the Department of Energy in Southwest Virginia.

“I think that’s very, very important to make significant projects happen and also to leverage resources for these communities in need of an economic boom and investments. So, it’s good to see how that works and the different players and organizations and what they bring to the table,” said Pena, who said his community struggles with an inability to diversify its economy, an unhealthy population, unskilled workers that make it difficult to draw employers, a lack of access to health care and quality of life issues.

The group then headed to the Big Stone Gap Visitors Center for a panel discussion on leveraging technology and telework to overcome rural barriers and attract new business. They also heard an overview of Project Fuse, the model InvestSWA developed with the Lonesome Pine Regional Industrial Facilities Authority for Lee, Wise, Scott and Dickenson counties and the city of Norton to attract tech companies to rural downtowns.

According to Payne, after InvestSWVA closed deals on expansions by eHealth Technologies and EarthLink, the Fuse model was used to close the deal for Paymerang to expand in Big Stone Gap.

The group also visited the future site of a regional grain terminal in Norton, where they learned about the Appalachian Grains initiative to grow malting-quality small grains for the craft beverage industry. Payne said that $3 million in grants have been secured from the Abandoned Mine Land Economic Revitalization Program and the Virginia Tobacco Commission to build the grain terminal for processing and storage.

Grace Blanchard, the National Association of Counties’ program manager for resilient economies and communities, said Friday she was impressed by the three-day event and the instant connections that were formed between people from across the country who have a lot in common.

She added that Southwest Virginia was chosen for the first site visit “really in recognition of the innovative projects and creative partnerships and the regional collaboration that’s taking place there right now. The enthusiasm and just momentum in the region is contagious.”

Duane Miller, executive director of the LENOWISCO Planning District Commission, said the biggest takeaway he had from the event was how impressed others were by the widespread regional cooperation and partnerships that are taking place in Southwest Virginia.

“We had people from all over the United States come to visit our region,” he said. “It was a great opportunity for us to learn from them and I think they learned a lot from us, too, particularly in regard to all these energy initiatives we’re working on here.”

Susan Cameron is a reporter for Cardinal News. She has been a newspaper journalist in Southwest Virginia...