In the heart of coal country Appalachia, a new cross-sector coalition is positioned to lead the region, and perhaps even the country, in the transition to green energy. A potential implementation grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (Called the Build Back Better Regional Challenge) would jump-start a range of projects and social enterprises that could transform the local economy and become a model for collective action and public investment in the years ahead. To learn more, I caught up with Brandon Dennison, founder of Coalfield Development, and now Regional Economic Competitiveness Officer for the Appalachia Climate Tech (ACT NOW) coalition that he spearheaded.
Ashoka’s Michael Zakaras: As we know, West Virginia is a state that’s been dominated by coal. And that has its various problems as we look to the future. But you say, “We have a competitive advantage” when it comes to transitioning to clean energy. Why?
Brandon Dennison: Well, for starters, West Virginia is the third most forested state in the nation. Our partner The Nature Conservancy identified Appalachia as one of the top three most important ecosystems on the planet for carbon capture. So that’s one thing. We’re also an energy state, through and through. We have way more power line infrastructure than most other states, a must for exporting energy. And our workforce is uniquely well-suited for energy jobs, it’s just that the kind of energy involved in these jobs needs to change.
Zakaras: And Coalfield Development, the organization you started in 2011, has considerable experience connecting that workforce to new jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities in the region.
Dennison: Yes, and frankly, whether you’re mining coal, installing solar systems, or doing reforestation, these energy jobs are hard work. They require grit. Being an energy worker is not for everybody. But our workforce is happy to do the hard jobs. We’re proud to have powered the country for so long and we want to keep at it.
Zakaras: An important point. And when you say clean tech jobs, do you mean solar?
Dennison: We mean renewable energy, broadly. So: solar, wind, geothermal, hydro. And landscape technology is extremely important for carbon capture. We’re going to hire local people to do sustainable mine land reclamation that can connect our vital ecosystems and capture more carbon. It’s renewable technology. And then there are some green manufacturing components to it as well. For example, a new electrical vehicle school bus manufacturer just located in Charleston, our capital. And a recycled steel company in Mason County. While this is all good progress, we’re also cognizant not to go all in on manufacturing because it turns into a race to the bottom, with each state trying to pay corporations more than the other to beg them to come. Our strategy is more bottom up, leveraging and expanding the assets we already have. We will more naturally attract other investment, without having to give away lots of tax credits and grants.
Zakaras: You’ve spent more than a year building the Appalachian Climate Technology Coalition, or ACT Now Coalition — a very interesting and diverse group of partners. Tell us more about it.
Dennison: We have the state’s two largest cities, the capital city of Charleston and the city of Huntington coming together on the same team. We have our two largest universities — West Virginia University and Marshall University. Again, traditional rivals coming together on the same team. We have more than 50 private businesses, and some of the leading social innovators in the state. What brings us all together? The very real potential we all see to create a strong and growing climate tech cluster in Southern West Virginia. And now with the opportunity of substantial federal investment, I’d call this moment historic. That’s not a word I use often or lightly.
Zakaras: What about unions — do they have a role to play in the clean energy future?
Dennison: Absolutely. Coalfield Development is a union shop, and our union partners are helping design our training programs. The coalition has full MOUs with electrical workers (IBEW) and carpenter unions that are deeply and genuinely engaged in the coalition. We all want to create good jobs with good benefits — this is how we will overcome generational poverty in our communities and region. Of the 21 counties in the ACT Now Coalition, 12 are in persistent poverty, as defined by the USDA. It’s imperative that we act now for our communities, our economy, our planet.
Zakaras: What about racial equity?
Dennison: It’s interesting, a lot of times people hear “equity” and think, “What does that have to do with West Virginia?” Our coalition is engaged with the two largest majority-minority census tracts in the state. People of color in West Virginia are among the most marginalized in the country, and we’re putting their well-being front and center. This project centers racial equity and has a lot to say about this. In fact, our voting members are mandated to be more than 50% representative of historically excluded communities, as per our formal MOU that all coalition members have signed.
Zakaras: When many Americans think of public dollars flowing into West Virginia, they too often think of food stamps, unemployment benefits. How is this proposal different?
Dennison: It’s a chance for investment, to build a new economic foundation that positions us as an economic leader. This part of the state has seen growth before, but it was extractive growth. The wealth that was here got shipped out. People here got by, but didn’t thrive. What we are talking about now is a new model for Southern West Virginia, and other places, too — a model of sustainable, even regenerative, development. We are not just pushing for a manufacturing plant or two. We’re saying: let’s invest in the long-term capacity and talent and entrepreneurship of our people. The same people who launched Solar Holler that now has 70 full-time IBEW union employees. A lot of our projects are programmatic, emphasizing developing the workforce based on Coalfield Development’s pioneering 33-6-3 model, and supporting entrepreneurs based on another great group called the West Virginia Community Development Hub.
Zakaras: So, the public dollars would be fast-tracking, or jump-starting, what’s already in motion?
Dennison: Correct. We’re not starting from scratch; these are groups that have worked together for many years. This market is emerging. The question is, are we going to scale it to its full potential? Or force it to straggle along for 10 years? We can invest this hundred million right now — very strategically, and quickly, and effectively, and the private sector can scale it from there, leveraging it into more than a billion of private investment. That’s the strategy.
Zakaras: A hundred million to a billion. That’s a good return. And how much buy-in, or even awareness of this possibility, or these kinds of possibilities, exists in West Virginia?
Dennison: It’s big news here and we have broad buy-in, a broad base of support, including letters of commitment from Senator Manchin, and Senator Capito, and Governor Justice. And the state development office is providing some of the matching funds for this project — we have raised $30 million in matching funds so far. Honestly, however you vote, you can’t argue with this.
Zakaras: It feels like this investment could really change the story. Brandon, you’ve got kids. What do you hope they are saying about the region in 10 years?
Dennison: That question gives me chills to think about — maybe because I’m a seventh generation West Virginian who grew up proud of my home but knew others didn’t always see it in the same positive light. I want that to change for my kids. I want West Virginia to become known as leading the way in building America’s new, more just, more sustainable and climate resilient economy. You know, I opened our first ACT Now press conference with, “Welcome to the new Appalachian economy.” That’s all I said, and there was this big, genuine, spontaneous applause. We could all feel in the room a shift happening. And a shift is happening here. It’s time to accelerate what’s already working. We’re ready.
Coalfield Development founder Brandon Dennison has been an Ashoka Fellow since 2018.