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Imagining Economies After Coal

The decline of the coal industry is poised to have a big impact for decades to come. In regions where it once dominated local economies, for many, things will never be quite the same.  But with great change also comes opportunity. 

The most abundant fossil fuel on the planet, coal has been used for heating by humans, since pre-historic times.  Native populations in what is now the American southwest used it for cooking in the 14th century and the first commercial coal mines in the new world opened for business in Virginia in the 1740s.  In the heyday of King coal, the Glyn Lyn coal power plant opened in Giles County, Virginia. It was 1919.  Despite updates over the years, and the hope among coal producers that it might one day be re-opened, the huge plant near the New River closed for good last May.

“We’re looking for every opportunity to either sell the property or re-use the property in some way.

John Shepelwich is communications manager for Appalachian Power, which owns the Glen Lyn plant.

“There’s a huge space in the center of that facility that is industrial size. And all sort of All great things that could appeal to an industrial type of customer or you know, I thought, “hey what about a brewery?’ We just don’t know what all could go in there.”

Transitions are never simple.  And paradigm shifts, well they take a little longer.  Following the lead of the Presidents Clean Power Plan with grants to regions hit hard by the decline of the coal industry, other organizations are taking different approaches, stepping in to the gaps, creating road maps to a new economy.

“Certainly there’ll be discussion about the site and re-use of the site, but it has to play in to the larger Giles county economy if it’s going to be successful," says Kevin Byrd.

Kevin Byrd is executive director of the New River Valley Regional Commission. The commission won a spot at a series of workshops around the country convened by the National Association of Counties, and federal economic development associations. Representatives from Giles, and economic experts from around the region will meet next month for what they’re calling an ‘innovation challenge.’ What are the best ways forward for a region as its main industry contracts? What are the components to capitalizing on other natural resources in the region beyond coal?

“One of those components is the growing outdoor recreation industry. The county has done a lot to advance that and support the entrepreneurs that are in that field and support the tourists that are coming in to experience the assets.  So we will be talking about, how does this play in to the river and the economy that’s being stimulated around river activities and hiking and biking.”

It remains to be seen what the future of the Glen Lyn Power plant will be. Byrd says ideas that come out of the upcoming workshop could be implemented in other locations as part of a regional economic development effort. Then it’s up to the private sector to determine weather the former coal burning operation, located near two major highways with a rail line to boot is an attractive opportunity.  Until then? 

“We will be stewards of that property until we discover whatever the ultimate outcome is. We have a responsibility to maintain it and keep up its environmental standards," says Shepelwich.

Appalachian Power is also shuttering 10 other coal-fired power plants in 7 states.  It is converting others to natural gas. The Clinch ever coal plant in Russell county Virginia is now being converted and is expected to be generating electricity from natural gas by January 2016.

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.
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