New Solar Fund a Rare Chance for Appalachian Grassroots Leaders

Properly directed resources with strong oversight offers an opportunity for meaningful change

WESTON, W.Va. — Here, in the northern reaches of West Virginia, the effects of natural gas exploration and production are extensive — as well as dangerous and even sometimes deadly. Methane leaks, fracking, pipeline construction (or rather, destruction), and workplace exposure to hazardous materials and high doses of radiation are everyday occurrences well beyond the borders of Lewis County, where Weston is the county seat.

A convoy of fracking trucks pass through Weston

Braxton, Doddridge, Gilmer, Harrison, Marion, Pocahontas, Randolph, Ritchie and other counties have all experienced these hazards and more (to learn of others, read “A Dirty Dozen Reasons to Oppose Fracking”).

Meanwhile, about 150 miles to the south, in Logan County — the center of coal country — the final gasps of a dying industry breath out the last speck of dust from destroyed mountain tops and amid an increase in Black Lung disease and deaths, especially in Central Appalachia.

And currently, in Glasgow, Scotland, world leaders are making dubious promises at the COP26 Summit. I say dubious based on this contradiction: President Biden said at the climate summit, about deforestation, “We’re going to work to ensure markets recognize the true economic value of natural carbon sinks and motivate governments, landowners and stakeholders to prioritize conservation.” Just days earlier, he had championed the ongoing and arguably increased use of oil.

All of these examples point to failed leadership at the highest levels of governments. When a threat arises, leaders must respond and do so quickly. For too many reasons to unpack, however, such leaders are becoming more rare.

“Healing the wounds of the earth and its people does not require saintliness or a political party, only gumption and persistence. It is not a liberal or conservative activity; it is a sacred act.”

Author Paul Hawken in Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice and Beauty to the World.

So, it is left to those among the grassroots. In the New York Times bestseller, “Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History is Restoring Grace, Justice and Beauty to the World,” author Paul Hawken writes, “The way we harm the earth affects all people, and how we treat one another is reflected in how we treat the earth.” Hawken reveals that this was one of the earliest lessons he learned in researching the guiding principles of environmental and social justice movements.

He also pondered, “Rather than a movement in the conventional sense, could it be an instinctive, collective response to threat? He continues, “Can it successfully address the issues that governments are failing to: energy, jobs, conservation, poverty, and global warming?”

When he wrote this book 15-years-ago, this is what Hawken concluded: “Healing the wounds of the earth and its people does not require saintliness or a political party, only gumption and persistence. It is not a liberal or conservative activity; it is a sacred act.”

I concur. I know others do as well from my travels in West Virginia and elsewhere in Appalachia (and Haiti, but we’ll save that for another post). Indeed, when planning the Preserving Sacred Appalachian conference held in 2015, I wrote then that there were a number of core assumptions which guided the thinking behind that conference. They include:

  1. The earth, because its ecosystems support life, is sacred. The notion of sacred varies; however, each person can remain true to his or her understanding while agreeing upon this definition by Webster’s: “reverently dedicated to some … purpose…”;
  2. Appalachia’s eco-systems presently suffer from the fossil fuel mono economy, including, but not limited to: mountaintop removal, hydraulic fracturing and related natural gas pipeline development;
  3. These practices present serious risks to the public health and safety of the people of Appalachia;
  4. These practices pose a longtime, ongoing and immediate danger to one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet;
  5. The history of Appalachia is one of energy exploitation, aggravating conservation efforts;
  6. If Appalachia’s beauty is to be sustainable for present generations and preserved for future generations, alternative energies must be developed and conservation adopted.

That’s a grim outline. However, there is good news. Something has changed. Those on the front lines working only on gumption and persistence now have some help. Number 6 can now be a reality for the present generation of community leaders, thanks to the Appalachian Solar Finance Fund, which I wrote about yesterday. In summary, it is a $1.5 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to provide technical and monetary assistance to “anchor institutions” in Appalachian communities transitioning to solar energy.

Focusing on these grassroots institutions will be, in my view, a key reason that this fund will truly make a difference. According to the SFF website, eligible public entities include: public schools, colleges and universities; local government buildings; municipal fire and rescue stations; water treatment plants; homeless shelters; faith institutions; and, other NGOs and nonprofits. Private entities eligible include: subsidized housing; childcare centers; medical facilities; private and charter schools; colleges and universities; manufacturers; “Main Street” businesses; and, other anchor commercial activities.

Such funding is a proper allocation of resources for the times. It is also accompanied by strong oversight. Funded programs must be investment-ready and have a strong probability of success. Other considerations include deployment readiness, catalytic capital yield, local community impact and geographic diversity.

There is no question that we have an obligation to this sacred region and planet to transition from life-killing non-renewable fossil fuels to renewable energy resources that provide jobs and strengthen communities.

The SFF is available to entities in all 55 of West Virginia’s counties and to an additional 129 counties in Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia. Those wishing to learn more can still sign up for a webinar planned for tomorrow by SFF. You can register here.

This sign is in Southern West Virginia, where the Mountain Valley Pipeline still poses a grave threat to public health and nature

I am generally skeptical of large grants. Too often, the money does not truly benefit the most vulnerable in a community. However, as coal-impacted communities of Appalachia struggle to survive, virtually every person in the community is vulnerable. So, the first step is to make a community viable and sustainable again. It’s just the beginning, but it is a significant step in the right direction.

I hope that if you are one of those aging and grizzled frustrated activists or fresh young faces to the streets and hollows full of vim and vigor, that you’ll learn more about the SFF. It may be just the catalyst you need to continue your work of “blessed unrest.”

© Michael M. Barrick, 2021.

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