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Central Appalachia’s Emerging Transition: 'Integrated Energy is the Key'

Dec 11, 2013

Upon completing my graduate research at Appalachian State University concerning central Appalachia's two major transitions (industrialization and the War on Poverty), I am hopeful that this research may provide some important strategies for regional stakeholders as they begin navigating through what comes close to being virtual chaos in an otherwise comforting scenario where coal has been king. In West Virginia, myself and others have been working day and night to ensure that the communities, who have and still provide America's energy based economy with a much needed fuel resource (coal), will not suffer as the US transitions to a sustainable energy economy.

To put it in simple terms, renewable energy signifies a similar transition that coal ushered in during the regions industrial period, roughly between the 1880s to 1920s. Only this time, this transition is profoundly democratic given the distributed nature of renewable energy's integration into the grid. In order to prepare the region for this transition, many regional evolutionaries (e.g., entrepreneurs) have begun to develop a new way of thinking about energy development that will be unfolding over 2014, that is, integrated energy.     

One initial "integrative" success comes from Kentucky. Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative Association (KHGCA) has emerged as a regional leader in developing integrated energy solutions. As a part of an emerging Central Appalachian Sustainable Economies (CASE) network that emphasizes a market based approach to regional development, KHGCA along with Patriot Bioenergy Corportion released a technical brief entitled: "Hemp as an Energy Crop to Transform the Economy of Rural Kentucky." In line with an integrative strategy, the briefing states that "co-firing is an attractive near term strategy for existing power plants to achieve reduction of carbon dioxide and other pollutants in compliance with new regulations on emissions, and it has been demonstrated at more than 150 power-generating sites around the globe."


The briefing concludes: "Our vision is that existing power plants will serve as hubs for integration of agriculture, energy conversion, and manufacturing in a new economy that benefits from the ability to convert biomass, and particularly hemp, into thousands of valuable products." Roger Ford, CEO of Patriot Bioenergy Corporation, stated that “as an energy based economy, central Appalachia has the technical know-how and infrastructure to position itself as a national leader in sustainable energy development and integrated energy is the key.” He continued, “this translates to an all-the-above energy strategy for a region that is predominantly defined by traditional energy resources to date.”

This statement reflects a broad based sentiment across the region that sustainable energy will play a key role in central Appalachia’s emerging transition where creating jobs is tantamount to discovering the holy grail of community revitalization. Bob Napier, who had been a coalminer for 22 years before a Kentucky county company laid him off, stated that:  "The main thing is we need jobs — something in here that would put these people that's off work back to work." In the end, it’s not coal vs. renewable energy but jobs vs. no jobs that matters during this delicate and vital transitional period for the region. Simply put, integrated energy may indeed be the key to a successful transition in a region predominantly defined by fossil fuels. 

In this spirit, Bill Opalka’s statement in a 2011 Energy Biz article clarifies the integrated approach: “Take decidedly clean technologies like wind or solar and the in-vogue, cheap and plentiful energy choice of the present, natural gas, and combine them to create a seamlessly operating power plant.” For Bill and many others, “it seems like a match made in energy heaven.” Here, West Virginia being considered as “almost heaven” becomes more and more of a reality than a nostalgic country ballad.  


Moreover, in Ken Silverstein’s recent article in Energy Biz entitled “Utility-Scale Solar Power Will Grow with the Help of Natural Gas” he quotes Ed Cahill, lead researcher for Lux, in the reported titled “Cheap Natural Gas: Fracturing Dreams of a Solar Future.” Cahill stated that “on the macroeconomic  level, a ‘golden age of gas’ can be a bridge to a renewable future as gas will replace coal until solar becomes cost competitive without subsidies. On the microeconomic level, solar integrated with natural gas can lower costs and provide stable output.”

Some in central Appalachia believe that coal should play an important role in building “a bridge to a renewable future” as well. With Kentucky’s recent “Shaping Our Appalachian Region” or SOAR summit stimulating conversations for the region’s future, a potential economic rebirth in Eastern Kentucky is refreshing given that coal mines and facilities have laid off about 6,000 workers in the region since mid-2011. This recent decline does not, however, signify a quickly diminishing market for coal in the region but does signify long term trends that must be considered.

For example, significant declines in mining productivity over the past decade have substantially reduced the long term sustainability of Appalachian coal. This has resulted in higher prices for the commodity, causing the market to replace it with coal from other regions, namely from mines farther west with more easily accessible depositsAppalachian coal output is expected to continue on this decline for an indefinite period. According to the EIA’s Quarterly Coal Report, between March 2012 and March 2013 West Virginia coal production fell by 12.3 percent, and total U.S. coal production declined 8 percent between this time as well. This blog on the Washington Post site as well as the map below provides further illustration of the problem at hand:


Given these undeniable trends, the region has begun to show signs of integrated energy which of course will include coal. Whether it’s in the form of Kentucky’s SOAR or the region’s Coal Blue project, the question for those that live in the region is not whether coal is good or bad, it’s more real than this simple ideological distinction. For those that call central Appalachia their home, the real dilemma has always been “no jobs is bad” and “more jobs is good.”  

Returning back to my research to date, my sincere hope is that the nation will not continue its legacy of preventing economic diversification from emerging in a region that has given America so much (hence my reason for writing this REW piece). Yes, this has definitively happened in the region's past and may very well happen again given that some folks want an immediate end to coal despite its destructive consequences for struggling communities in central Appalachia. During this vital transition, local innovations are emerging that, if nourished, will come to define the driving forces of not only the regions transition but potentially the nations as well - one founded upon less revolutionary and more evolutionary strategies.

In turn, unlike central Appalachia's transitions in the past (industrialization and the War on Poverty), this transition holds the potential of redefining the way American's think about this region. American's may come to see beyond stereotypes such as feuding hillbillies, degenerative cultures of poverty or helpless coal communities and view central Appalachian's as national leaders in sustainability and perhaps more importantly: integrated energy. A trend that very much defines a path forward for realizing synergistic markets: the profoundly regenerative condition where modern evolutionaries are and will continue to thrive...     

NOTE: Interested in my research to date? Here are links to both my thesis as well as my facebook page where I am experimenting with some ideas in preparation for publishing my book set to be released early 2015.    


The information and views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of or the companies that advertise on this Web site and other publications. This blog was posted directly by the author and was not reviewed for accuracy, spelling or grammar.

First and foremost a philosopher, J. Eric Mathis has been at the forefront of initiatives to bridge the gap between the fossil fuel and renewable energy industries through the development and implementation of innovative finance and business models. These models are designed to be beneficial to b...


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