State of the Planet

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Beyond Coal: Economic Alternatives for Kentucky

After months of anticipation, on Monday the Environmental Protection Agency formally announced its intention to begin regulating carbon dioxide emissions through the Clean Air Act. Among other provisions, the new rules will require existing power plants to reduce their emissions 25 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Given that coal plants account for some 40 percent of US carbon emissions—making them the nation’s single biggest contributor to climate change—the rules are likely to have substantial impact on the coal industry.

A strip mine in Marin County. Source: Wikimedia commons.
A strip mine in Martin County, Kentucky. Source: Wikimedia commons.

But while some politicians and coal industry leaders are lining up a ferocious political and legal battle to stop the rules from taking effect, progressive institutions in coal mining states are already looking forward and asking what can be done to move economies toward more sustainable alternatives.

This was the question posed to a group of Earth Institute Environmental Science and Policy Masters students for their capstone project by the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) earlier this year. The students were tasked with evaluating Kentucky’s physical, economic and cultural resources to identify ways to move Kentucky’s Appalachian economy toward a more sustainable, post-coal future—and to make recommendations for how the college system could adapt and add to its curriculum to facilitate such a transformation.

According to Billie Hardin, the college system’s sustainability project manager, “The project originated from our desire to be a leader in Appalachia to help transform the economy from coal and to make it more sustainable.” It coincides with a state bipartisan initiative known as Shaping our Appalachian Region, or SOAR, which aims to engage citizens to develop new ideas on how to diversify and develop the Kentucky economy, said Hardin. The college system was specifically interested in programs that would provide an infrastructure for sustainable, small-business development and would encourage communities to embrace an entrepreneurial culture.

While the federal regulations will likely provide additional impetus for such initiatives, the reality is that coal employment has been declining in the region for decades. According to the students’ report, the number of Kentucky residents employed by the coal industry fell from 37,505 in 1979 to 8,205 in 2013. Unemployment and poverty—long endemic to the region—have only worsened since the recession of 2008, with unemployment ranging from 10 to 16 percent in the coal-dependent counties in the southeastern part of the state.

Salamander Springs Farm practices sustainable agriculture in Berea, KY. Source: Booth 4
Salamander Springs Farm practices sustainable agriculture in Berea, KY. Source: Booth 4

According to project manager Kate Broderick, to address these challenges the capstone team began by researching  “what skills and values the community already has that also add value” for entrepreneurial sustainable development. The team began by looking at different industries, sectors and initiatives that could be “led by and for the community, and that add value to the community, and that communities could take on as their own,” said Broderick.

The next question was how the college system could use its resources to promote and support sustainable economic development. “We needed to look at the potential capacity of KCTCS to support economic development as well as looking at the resources of the region.”

“It became immediately apparent that KCTCS had three strengths that it could leverage,” Broderick added. The first was the system’s large network—nearly half of undergraduate students in the state go through the college system at some point. The second was the system’s existing strength in workforce training. The final strength, Broderick said, was the system’s infrastructure to access land and capital.

Based on these parameters, the team settled on sustainable agriculture and environmental remediation as highly promising industries to focus on.

“There is a culture of working the land in Kentucky,” Broderick said, making sustainable agriculture a logical fit. Broderick pointed to economic multiplier studies that suggest that each dollar of sales from a small farm yields $1.70 in community income. The colleges could facilitate this shift by expanding the existing sustainable agriculture program and by helping entrepreneurs research and develop profitable niche agricultural products. The system currently has an existing agriculture curriculum in Western Kentucky; the team suggested expanding this curriculum and adapting it to the Appalachian region’s crops and livestock. Additional courses could be added in integrated pest management, community sociology for students to better understand local food systems, and nutrition and food science to invest in the long-term health of Appalachian citizens.

The team then looked at current barriers to a more profitable sustainable farming economy in the region and found that in addition to the need for retraining, lack of infrastructure—including things like major highways and broadband access—limit the ability of local farms to export products. To address this barrier, the team suggested that the college system leverage its network to help set up a centrally located food hub, through which producers could aggregate their products and connect with potential buyers, such as retailers, hotels and restaurants.

In addition to sustainable farming, the students focused on environmental remediation as a sustainable growth industry. After many decades of heavy coal mining, the state is riddled with degraded or inaccessible land. By reclaiming the land, said Broderick, the citizens of Kentucky will invest in the future, while also creating jobs. The college system can help facilitate this shift by enhancing its bioremediation curriculum and facilitating remediation apprenticeship programs.

“Their recommendations were very insightful,” said Hardin. She particularly liked the team’s ability to integrate entrepreneurial values and approaches into their approach. “It think it’s highly likely that we will implement at least some of these recommendations.”

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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