On Clean Energy

Every community and region is rich in story, with so many narratives, only some of which become more widely known and shared. We join the ranks of storycatchers – helping to discover and share some of the less championed, crucially important stories of people and places.

Over the coming year, Social Possibility Lab will be storycatching across central Appalachia and beyond – learning about clean energy businesses, sustainable development organizations, and social entrepreneurs.

This work is supported in part by E2. E2 is a national, nonpartisan group of business leaders, investors and others who advocate for smart policies that are good for the economy and good for the environment.
One of our aims is to lift up the stories of sustainability and clean energy in regions like Appalachia, highlighting the jobs that are available as a company founder or as a skilled worker. We also want to learn more about the people and organizations working to create sustainable livelihoods and flourishing communities.

In part, we hope to remedy misconceptions; highlight successes; and discover stories. We also want to better understand the complexities at work:

  • the challenges of working in sustainability and clean energy in places where many people still identify so strongly with coal and extractive industries;
  • the difficulties and opportunities associated with social entrepreneurship in rural regions;
  • the connections to people and their everyday lived experience of place; and
  • the impact and potential of these efforts for regional economic flourishing.

There remains a stigma and widespread public misconceptions associated with clean energy and sustainability in much of rural America. This is particularly true in Appalachia due to the history of coal production and politicized narratives associated with coal’s decline and the reasons for it.

In reality, there are a rising number of clean energy and sustainability-focused companies and start-ups in the region, with a significant number of quality jobs. In 2019, clean energy jobs in the U.S. outnumbered fossil fuels jobs nearly three to one (3.26M to 1.17M).

According to a 2019 E2 report on Clean Jobs in America, nearly 335,000 people work in the solar industry and more than 111,000 work in the wind industry, compared to 211,000 working in coal mining or other fossil fuel extraction. And these jobs will continue to increase in number, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The two fastest growing occupations over the next 10 years are solar and wind technicians, with median annual salaries of $42,000 to $55,000.

And the clean energy jobs are not just in wind and solar – they include, for instance, energy efficiency workers in HVAC and lighting, many located in small businesses distributed across the nation, including rural America and regions like Appalachia.

The focus on clean energy is critically important to all of our futures. The Earth is on track to warm by 1.5 degrees Celsius – we’d have to reduce our emissions 45% by 2030 to prevent that warming. There is little confidence we will do so. There is more carbon in our atmosphere now than at any point in the existence of humans, and the amounts have continued to rise despite a growing awareness of the crisis. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, it is still possible to prevent the Earth from warming by greater than 1.5 degrees, although many expect the warming to reach closer to 2 degrees Celsius or more, unless serious concerted action is taken globally to reduce emissions.

Still, every step to curtail emissions matters. If we can slow warming and prevent even greater warming then we may still help preserve a livable planet for future generations. The effects are dire if we fail – warming oceans leading to disappearing ice caps and islands and coastlines. And adverse economic and social impacts from food insecurity to displacement. And these impacts would “fall disproportionately on the poor and vulnerable.” By holding warming closer to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we could reduce the climate-related poverty risks of several hundred million people by 2050.

A clean energy at all costs approach has little likelihood to succeed without a corresponding focus on helping communities and vulnerable peoples, including those in fossil-fuel reliant regions and industries, transition to more sustainable economies. People need jobs and communities where they and their families can flourish.

Some of these jobs may be in manufacturing or agriculture or health care or technology. And, the path to these jobs is not always easy and straight. We need more paths that work for more people – including those who are exiting jobs in mining and other industries. Communities have a potential wealth in human capital – but may need better “strategies for people”, that help and accept and support the full range of talented people in a place. This includes those returning citizens who have been incarcerated, the immigrants and foreign-born who fuel entrepreneurial activity in many neighborhoods, and those affected by substance use and addictions including many young people.
Some communities, development organizations and social entrepreneurs are helping to create these pathways- opening up new opportunities for livelihood and flourishing.

We hope to help existing clean energy and sustainability-focused efforts in Appalachia (and beyond) better share their story but also to see how their stories, and the stories of others help inform our understanding of place and of possibility.