The Forecast for Jobs in Appalachian Ohio Looks Sunny and Bright

A 400-megawatt solar farm could make this region a hub for clean power and big companies looking to cut carbon.

Credit: Violeta Chalakova/iStock

Along the Ohio River east of Cincinnati lies The Point, a huge industrial park with room for new tenants. Hundreds of acres with access to the river and the railroad sit ready for development. And while the space would be appropriate for any number of businesses, the residents of Lawrence County have something particular in mind: a solar manufacturing hub to support what would be the biggest solar farm in this corner of the Midwest.

A proposed 400-megawatt farm would more than double Ohio’s current solar capacity, with the potential to harness more of the sun’s power than the five surrounding states combined. The fact that the project could also generate a solar manufacturing hub, create hundreds of new jobs, and attract climate-minded corporations has piqued the interest of many local communities.

“We want Ohio’s first large-scale solar plant here in southeastern Ohio―and more important, here in Lawrence County,” says Bill Dingus, executive director of the Lawrence Economic Development Corporation. “We’ll do whatever it takes to make it possible.”

Like much of Appalachian Ohio, Lawrence County has lived through hard economic times. First the steel mills closed as global trade moved the industry overseas. Then the chemical fertilizer plant shut its doors. After a long career as dean of Ohio University Southern, Dingus has spent the past decade and a half trying to revitalize the local economy. He’ll be 72 years old in September and has lived in Lawrence County for 70 of those years.

“I’m a great believer,” says Dingus, “that you should grow where you’re planted.”

The place Dingus was planted, central Appalachia, has been America’s resource supercenter for generations. From logging to steel mills to uranium enrichment facilities, the region’s resources and manufacturing fed the industrial revolution and the global economy. Now, market changes have led to a decline in another industry important to the area: coal. Even though Lawrence County doesn’t have an ounce of coal, 12 industries (such as steel drill fabrication), along with many jobs, rely on the coal economy.

But when AEP Ohio asked the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio in 2013 to approve a plan to use its customers’ money to reinvest in its coal-fired power plants, there was a public outcry, pushed by the Sierra Club’s “No Coal Bailouts” campaign. This led AEP Ohio to propose something quite different by the end of 2015. Customers wanted more investment in cleaner renewable energy sources, so the utility and the environmentalists reached a compromise that entailed a power purchase agreement (PPA) for the largest clean energy project in Ohio’s history.

The stipulated agreement includes a small piggy bank for environmental improvements, retirement dates for old coal plants, and a transition plan for affected communities. But the agreement’s crown jewel was the ushering in of 900 megawatts of renewable energy in Ohio by 2021—500 megawatts of wind power and 400 of solar.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the Buckeye State had a total of 175 megawatts of solar in 2017 spread across nearly 1,250 separate (mostly rooftop) installations. One megawatt of solar can power about 164 households. Ohio could power nearly 66,000 homes (or about half of Cincinnati) with 400.

What does a 400-megawatt solar farm look like? According to the Sierra Club, the project could require up to 4,000 acres. Imagine 300 football fields laid side by side covered in photovoltaic panels. Where these panels will one day gleam in the sun has yet to be determined, but The Point is not the only location being considered for where they could be manufactured.

About 50 miles north of Lawrence County lives Jen Chandler. Chandler, an elected member of the Piketon Village Council and participant in the Appalachian Ohio Solar Supply Chain Initiative planning effort, is a lifelong resident of Pike County, as were her parents and grandparents. The area lost more than 1,000 jobs in 2011 when Masco, a kitchen cabinet manufacturer, went out of business. Now another large employer, a uranium enrichment facility, is in the midst of a decadelong cleanup process before it too closes its doors. Chandler predicts that the facility will lay off its 2,000 workers slowly, but more job losses are inevitable, leaving residents to choose between moving to find work elsewhere and staying and accepting underemployment.

“You have families who’ve made homes here for a hundred years,” Chandler says of her tight-knit community. “You just have strong roots, bonds, and family dynamics in Appalachia.”

A new solar farm and all that comes with it, she hopes, could keep more of her community intact—and even help it thrive.

The Long Game

“Appalachian Ohio has a long history of extractive industries coming in,” says Evan Blumer, project director of the Appalachian Ohio Solar Jobs Network. “When they leave there’s not much left, whether it be coal more recently, or silica for glass before that, or clay for pottery, or, in the Civil War era, hardwood trees to make charcoal to fire iron furnaces.” The result is high levels of unemployment, persistent unemployment, and persistent poverty.

Once built, a solar farm doesn’t require many workers—just a handful of people to mow the lawn, keep the panels clean, do occasional maintenance, and so on. But if large enough, the farm could bring in a lot of other businesses. Companies that produce the myriad parts needed to develop solar projects could support 700 to 800 permanent, well-paying jobs. Furthermore, the plan is for those companies, as well as those involved in the farm’s construction, to make an extra effort to employ displaced utility workers and veterans.

“As a nation we owe many of them a debt,” says Jack Gardner, a retired Army lieutenant general who was a volunteer consultant on the project. He describes veterans as qualified employees with valuable technical expertise and teamwork skills. “One way to help is not just to get them a job, but a job in a growing field with good wages.”

The economic impact of solar power in Ohio is already outstripping that of the state’s coal industry. Currently, Ohio’s solar industry employs twice as many workers as coal. Blumer hopes the incoming solar and wind farms—wherever they end up—will also entice even bigger businesses (names like Amazon and Google) to set up shop in Ohio.

“We are working to attract new industry and jobs to our communities, particularly those that have been impacted heavily by changes in the coal industry,” says Marc Reitter, AEP Ohio’s vice president of regulatory and finance. “In Ohio, the development of our solar resources gives preference to Appalachian Ohio. It’s an area of the state that could really benefit from an emerging renewable energy economy.”

Blumer agrees with the old tourism motto “Ohio, the heart of it all.” He says, “Ohio has a number of attractive things. The state has great logistics with access to highways and the Ohio River. We know that Ohio will have a better shot of attracting these 21st-century companies if renewable energy resources are there.”

Although the solar project has yet to be finalized, the hopes for a clean energy future in this corner of Appalachia are bright. “We’ve taken from Appalachia for so long,” says Neil Waggoner, Ohio representative of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “We want to see Appalachia creating energy with parts made in Appalachia with real long-term opportunities for Appalachians not based in an extractive industry.”

As Bill Dingus says, things should grow where they’re planted. Maybe it’s time to plant something new—and then watch it grow.

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