Agents of Impact | August 5, 2022

Brandon Dennison, Coalfield Development: Forging a path for Appalachia’s green economy

Jessica Pothering
ImpactAlpha Editor

Jessica Pothering

ImpactAlpha, August 5 – In the roller coaster climate bill negotiations with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, Brandon Dennison brought something to the table that many other policy advocates couldn’t: evidence of the local impacts of a green economy.

Dennison’s organization, Coalfield Development, has provided workforce stabilization, reskilling and jobs to 1,600 workers in a state racked by the coal industry’s decline. It has also helped launch several green and social enterprises, including Solar Hollar, one of the first solar companies in southern West Virginia. And it’s now leading a coalition of West Virginia universities, municipalities and other organizations called the Appalachian Climate Technologies Coalition, or “Act Now,” to grow the state’s green-collar workforce, repurpose empty manufacturing facilities, and reclaim mined land for sustainable use.

“We’re a tangible example of what could be possible,” says Dennison, who was among many pressing the reluctant Democratic senator to support a climate package. “I think we had a unique place in the discussion because we’re not a policy organization, we’re a practitioner saying that this sort of policy could help us.”

West Virginia has the ingredients to help lead the green transition. Though the state is one of the poorest in the U.S., it’s long been a net exporter of energy, with an extensive power distribution infrastructure in place. It is the third most-forested state, making it a carbon sink that could benefit from the carbon markets.

“With smart management of our natural resources, there will be good job and investment opportunities,” Dennison tells ImpactAlpha. “We’re starting to see it already, because of ESG commitments and carbon-credit trading.”

Edelen Renewables, for example, a Kentucky-based developer of renewable energy and reforestation projects, is partnering with West Virginia-based The Dickinson Group to bring such projects to the state.

Another opportunity: converting former mountaintop-removal sites into solar farms. “We could export green energy up and down the East Coast while converting a liability and a scar on the landscape,” says Dennison.

As part of Act Now, West Virginia University and The Nature Conservancy are developing a mined-land-to-solar pilot program covering 50,000 acres. 

Provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act, such as solar and green manufacturing tax credits for projects in fossil-fuel communities, could turbo-charge green initiatives in the state.

“Appalachia can lead the way to the new green economy,” Dennison posits. “We have unique advantages that position us to not just survive the transition from coal but actually thrive.”