Feb 11, 2016

Appalachia's Clean Energy Future?

A typical scene in Appalachia, much like what I saw in
Williamson in the Fall of 2007
A recent interview with Scott "the solar"Sklar prompted this post and if you will permit me, I'm going to take a little time to talk about energy trends other than solar.

When you and I think of Appalachian energy, we think of coal-loaded trains stretching on endlessly and distant dynamite blasts opening up entire mountain tops for mining. In the Fall of 2007, I spent a week in Williamson, WV and I learned a lot about energy.

One day, I visited an Arche Coal mountain-top removal site and the scale of everything was HUGE! I rode around in a mini-van with some fellow Notre Dame students. A Mack truck with a tall, yellow flag guided us around. This was so earth movers with wheels 12 feet tall wouldn't accidentally back up onto our 6 foot tall van.

The "mountain-top removal" technique was no exaggeration either. Whole mountains had been reconfigured into dirt piles and runways and trenches to extract the black gold.

Our tour guide explained that at that point--fall '07--coal created 52% of American electricity. Although the current percentage is debated, it's in the mid- to low-30s. That works out to roughly a 20% drop in 10 years and if we kept that up, coal would be at 0% around 2032.

However, a lot of this change has happened because of the amazing natural gas boom so I doubt it will keep falling at this rate. However, coal will keep falling and this will change the culture and landscape of Appalachia as we know it.

During a recent solar interview with clean energy expert, Scott Sklar, I got an idea of what Appalachia might look like in 2050. Instead of a coal trains and dynamite, Sklar sees energy generated from whirring windmills, deep geothermal wells, and tree harvesting.

This is not an out-of-touch dream from a clean energy zealot. It's very probable.
  • Appalachia has an abundance of trees, which can be harvested in rotating patterns for burnable pellets and bark chips. I'm from the Pacific Northwest and this is something I saw frequently in the Weyerhaeuser owned forests of southwest Washington. 
  • Dead trees and biomass on the forest floor are also a big source of energy. 
  • Wind blowing over the mountains is forceful and you can ask anyone--like me--that's walked to the top. It could power innumerable turbines. 
  • In addition to this, Sklar claims that at least half of U.S. geothermal reserves are under Appalachia. Yellowstone and its geysers may be the first thing to come to mind but don't forget about this old mountain chain. 
The region is equipped with a good network of trains and blue-collar workers, which could greatly accelerate this energy transition. The great thing about this vision for Appalachia is that it is optimized through its diversity. If one method doesn't work, there are others to replace it.

There are a few steady trends that I imagine will change energy in Appalachia. I have tried to capture them in the sleek looking table below. 


Increasing
Decreasing
Clean energy
Number of jobs*
Cost per watt
Coal
Political opponents at the federal and local levels
Percentage of American electricity

*As of November 2015, the solar industry alone employed 208,859 workers (National Solar Jobs Census). In a job-hungry region like Appalachia, coal will be fighting an uphill battle against new employment opportunities.