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Been There, Done That

Wales’ coal industry began its slow decline 100 years ago. Its efforts to create a renewable energy agenda and new jobs can teach us plenty about our future.


By Charles Linn, FAIA

One of the reasons it is so difficult to have a discussion about replacing coal with renewable energy sources isn’t just that there is no obvious, immediate alternative. It is also that coal mining is a huge industry in the U.S., and mining is a way of life for tens of thousands of people, particularly in Appalachia. In 2008, there were 80,600 jobs associated with coal mining in the U.S., and half were located in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. That year the Appalachian states produced about one-third of our nation’s coal; 60 percent came from underground mines. The deaths of 29 miners in West Virginia in April serve as a reminder that working in deep mines is and always will be dangerous. The alternative is mountain-top removal, which employs fewer, destroys ecosystems, and permanently pollutes water supplies.

Been There, Done That
Photo © Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
W. Eugene Smith’s photograph of Welsh colliers appeared in an article about the struggles of the Labour Party in a 1951 issue of Life.
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Despite the fact Appalachian coal stokes the East Coast’s engines of commerce, coalfield workers don’t make much of a living from it. In 2007, the per-capita incomes in West Virginia and Kentucky ranked 49th and 46th in the nation respectively. And 60 percent of West Virginia’s state budget is paid for by the coal and utility industries. As long as coal can be mined, miners need jobs, state governments need tax revenue, and people everywhere need cheap electricity, it will be hard to envision a future without it.

But it can and has happened. Wales’ fortunes were tied to coal for over 200 years. Its rich mines and seemingly endless supply of labor provided the world with billions of tons. Still, the danger, poverty, disease, and environmental damage that affects communities in Appalachia would have been familiar to any Welshman. Mountains of slag brought to the surface from deep mines often engulfed the villages of the miners who produced them.

The UK had its peak-coal moment in the early 1900s, and except for a period in the 1930s, its production declined dramatically for the next century. Demand fell as other countries harvested their own coal, and fuel oil and natural gas came into use. Labor reform drove production costs higher even as the coal that could be mined easily was exhausted. No one could quite believe it when coal mining became a money-loser. After World War II the government took over the mines and eventually it shut most of them down, privatizing those that were still viable.

The Welsh are fiercely proud of their nation’s great tradition as an energy producer; at the same time they are not at all shy about acknowledging that the mining industry of old was dangerous, kept people in poverty, and ravaged the land. When the mines closed, thousands of people lost their jobs and unemployment there was at times the highest in all of Europe. But the Welsh Assembly Government has embarked on remedies that are worth paying attention to. It wants to put its citizens back to work in skilled knowledge and manufacturing jobs. The foundation of this effort is the establishment of several university research institutes like the Wales Energy Research Centre, and the Low Carbon Research Institute. These institutes are intended to produce knowledge that will become the basis for new businesses. Wales already has 10 business incubation labs called Techniums that help companies bring new products to market. For example, at Technium OpTIC, in St. Asaph, a new company called Dyesol UK and Corus, a steel manufacturer, are developing a process to apply PV films directly to sheet steel. Business development is also crucial, and International Business Wales courts companies from around the globe. One of its successes is a Sharp PV-panel factory that has so many orders it must run around the clock.

Wales could never have done all of this on its own. Some of the funding for these programs comes from the UK government and some from the European Union. The lesson for us is that if we want people who depend on coal to support a transition away from it, they will need jobs. If our state governments are to emulate Wales they will need a lot of financial support, as well as replacement tax revenue.

Wales would also like to become a net renewable energy exporter within 20 years and already has a good start. It has 23 operating wind projects, three under construction, and 34 approved or in planning. The commitment to renewables will not only help Wales meet its carbon reduction goals, but also create manufacturing jobs. In January the British Wind Energy Association announced that a $51 million wind turbine plant would be built in Wales. But to succeed, the plant needs booked orders, and wind projects are often delayed by regulatory approvals. The association complained that over the past four years these decisions took an average of 21 months!

That would be a mere blink of an eye here. Our East Coast’s first offshore wind farm has finally been approved after nine years, so unless things move faster it appears our coal mining industry will be around awhile. Hopefully, we will learn from Wales, and start planning now for the day when coal will no longer be king. Alternative energy projects will need to come on-line much more quickly, and we must find ways of helping the people, industries, and state governments who would be hurt the most by this major cultural and economic change.

This article appeared in the May 2010 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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