Almost 100 chairs are full at City Hall as residents and workers listen to the announcement that their coal plant is shutting down sometime in the next two years. The announcement provides no details about when workers will lose their jobs, or how significant the impacts will be. People ask questions that have no answers, and elected officials look for information and solutions in a vacuum. All around, blame is rampant. In short, the community is left to face a future they didn’t expect and don’t want.
This story is not unique. This bleak picture is playing out—repeatedly—across coal mining and power plants states in the Midwest. And it’s happening on an increasingly frequent basis.
The Midwest hosts more baseload power plants, in both number and density, than any other region in the country. The region also has the highest number of plant retirements. Adams, Clermont, and Belmont Counties in Ohio; Trenton, Muskegon, and River Rouge in Michigan; and East Alton, in Illinois, are just a few of the places where plants have closed.
Planning for change is smart. Anticipating change is much harder. We’ve learned through experience that communities who take on the difficult task of trying to see the future after their power plant closes, fare better in the long run than those that do not. While this seems obvious, facing a structural change in a local economy is daunting, but there is a path forward.
We’ve learned through experience that communities who take on the difficult task of trying to see the future after their power plant closes, fare better in the long run than those that do not.
It starts with acceptance. Things are going to change.
Recognizing communities need access to more than grants alone, the Just Transition Fund also provides direct technical assistance. In some of the most challenging places, we’re helping kickstart the hard conversations about the new energy economy. We bring people together and facilitate consensus-building among diverse stakeholders, many of whom wouldn’t normally interact or find common ground. This is the foundation of our technical assistance.
We also help frame problems, leverage and raise public and private funds, and most importantly, offer pathways to transition, starting in the place that makes sense for each community or region. Some communities focus on worker retraining for known jobs in their region, others capitalize on their existing assets and try to develop them into a new economic base. Still others choose to downsize in geography and services, recognizing that due to their isolated location, or lack of transportation systems, typical economic development strategies are unlikely to succeed. These processes are all locally driven.
The cadence of transition work generally starts with local acceptance of a closure. Once people begin to look forward, it’s time to enlist people who can provide information, ideas, and momentum toward solutions in a structured format that encourages others to join. This group is the foundation of the local commitment that’s needed to create and then implement a plan to redesign the economy.
Coming in from the outside is tricky business. We only provide technical assistance where and when we’re invited. And we’re cautious to maintain a neutral, objective position, which is necessary to be accepted and effective.
What does technical assistance look like in the field?
In Minnesota, the communities that host baseload power plants have established a coalition to identify common needs and promote legislative agendas that help to mitigate the impact of tax base loss. Legislation could potentially change the way utilities are taxed and funds distributed. Our role is to help start the transition conversation, bring economic analysis experts, aggregate funding, and connect the players across communities and issues. The goal is to assess, in both quantitative and qualitative terms, the impact on the community when plants close and economically stabilizing responses. We’ve learned that communities who work together to aggregate, elevate, and articulate their common needs have a greater opportunity to find assistance as a group and as individual municipalities.
Along the Ohio River Valley—widely regarded as the epicenter of coal transition—where most power plants and coal mines are located, communities have not come together to share common problems and solutions. One of our roles there is to help convene stakeholders in the region to begin to articulate the impacts and possible responses to plant closure. In Adams County, the gaps the community faces in terms of the tax and job losses are clearly defined. Their options to respond to these needs are less clearly defined. The market’s move away from coal assets continues to be resisted in many parts of Ohio, making this conversation new and difficult.
Thinking about the future
Energy transition is new and while visible on the horizon years in advance, it often isn’t welcome or real until the doors shut. The horizon hasn’t been fixed, either, and this is one of the larger issues of transition. People are planning for a change that is comprised of a future with many unknowns and assumptions. What might the future look like in six months, in one year, five years after the loss of taxes? The Fund’s technical assistance can help paint scenarios, bringing in utilities, politicians, funders, and others to gather critical information on economic impacts and develop strategies to pursue.
Technical assistance takes many forms and is one way the Fund drives investment in the hardest hit communities—helping them, and helping us—learn what is needed and how best to address these gaps. We believe a successful transition away from coal can be achieved with early planning, local commitment, regional focus, and a coordinated statewide effort among power plant communities.
We believe a successful transition away from coal can be achieved with early planning, local commitment, regional focus, and a coordinated statewide effort among power plant communities.