By MARTY LEVINE
Mapping plans to transform many of this region’s fossil fuel jobs to renewable energy jobs, spur economic revitalization and help curb climate change is a big task. But the Center for Sustainable Business, in the Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration, recently worked with the city of Pittsburgh and seven other cities across Appalachia to create the Marshall Plan for Middle America, which proponents have dubbed a “road map” to the future.
Leslie Marshall, associate director of the Center for Sustainable Business, was lead author on the plan, which was named after the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II.
“The way to think of it,” says Marshall, “is to paint a picture of what is actually possible in our region.”
Those possibilities include gathering partners from among corporations (manufacturers of renewable energy products and large users of energy); universities (to do the research and development); community groups (from foundations for funding to labor unions for support of a changing economy); and investors (including private sources, but also the federal government).
The aim, she says, is “a more diversified clean-energy economy for our region.”
That region runs from Huntington and Morgantown, W.Va., through Pittsburgh to Columbus, Dayton, Youngstown, and Cincinnati, Ohio and Louisville, Ky.
Renewable energy sources and products are already being manufactured in the region, encompassing solar, wind, new battery technology and electric vehicles. But the region also has traditionally been the hub of everything from petroleum and coal extraction to shale gas fracking.
The transformation to new technologies that are healthier for people and the environment will take cooperation across a large area and among a great many institutions. But Marshall says the work on this report, which included input from many at Pitt, demonstrates how such partnerships “can be really part of making this picture realizable.”
She also sees Pitt’s contribution in research and development leading to new hands-on educational experiences for professors and students alike.
“A lot of our public institutions and local governments are understaffed and they don’t have the capacity to do the research” to move the region to a green future, she points out, providing new opportunities for Pitt and other universities.
The Marshall Plan report, released in December, notes that coal exports from West Virginia, for instance, have dropped 50 percent since the 1990s and fracking jobs have not been the answer to rescue the region economically.
The report says an investment of $60 billion each year in renewable energy technology, from today through 2030, “will advance both major gains in energy efficiency and an approximately 10-fold increase in the region’s supply of clean renewable energy. These investments will also produce a large-scale expansion of jobs in the region” — from manufacturing and installation to production of the raw materials for this new tech — and produce a “multiplier effect” in related jobs thanks to the spending of such new employees, for a total of 410,000 new jobs.
Even without the plan, the report warns, “fossil fuel-related industries will continue to contract in the face of massive global shifts in energy markets and demands for cleaner resource alternatives.” The plan, it concludes, will help our region “get ahead of this shift.”
Mike Blackhurst, research development manager of the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center in the University Center for Urban and Social Research, co-authored the Marshall Plan report, contributing energy forecasting and regional economic investment data concerning Appalachia.
Based on his expertise in how the energy economy impacts the overall financial health of the region, as well as the environmental and public health, Blackhurst says the report points us in the right direction.
“The transfer to renewables is well underway globally,” and Middle America has often led in energy transformations, he notes. Where we end up depends on how all the large institutions in the region — universities, foundations, governments — act on the goals.
“The Biden administration’s overarching objectives align well with the road map” in restructuring the production sector to renewables, he says of the new president. He realizes that the energy tech of the future must have fewer environmental and public health impacts, but will need a coordinated plan and likely federal subsidies — funding to move to renewables, and perhaps a carbon tax to reduce dependence on fossil fuel consumption.
“How do you make the idea attractive for a diverse electorate?” Blackhurst said, acknowledging that certain parts of Appalachia are trying to hold on to traditional industries or embracing fracking.
“We’re selling (shale gas) for less than the total price to society,” he notes, in health and environmental damage. Forcing the price upwars to make the fossil fuel industry pay for the harm fossil fuels cause “will make things like solar and wind competitive.”
“People think it automatically means job losses,” he says. “But it doesn’t have to be that way.” Still, getting local people to buy into the switch in local jobs will require “a narrative that demonstrates benefits to marginalized communities. Moving forward, I hope we can devise a plan that’s attractive to them.”
The Marshall “road map” envisions a future in which “we have a unique opportunity to change the entire trajectory of the Ohio River Valley during a period where the timing could not be more critical.” The next steps include a large effort to gather community input and ideally generate buy-in for any concrete plans that follow from the “road map.”
Coal and other fossil fuel companies already see the global energy market changing and are diversifying their businesses, says Leslie Marshall. “We are advocating for working with companies that are interested in being part of what the future of this region is going to look like. Let’s work to build out alternatives … that should include manufacturing opportunities (and) innovation and developing our infrastructure to make that happen” — bringing such improvements as new hospitals and broadband internet access to Appalachian regions currently lacking them.
“All that takes partnership,” she concludes. “It can’t be done by any one institution or any one city.”
Among the additional partners in preparing the report are the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, the Steel Valley Authority, the Heartland Capital Strategies Network and the Enel Foundation.
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-758-4859.
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