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​​​​​​​Policy Memo: Using Experience to Transition the Tobacco Region's Energy Mix

This warehouse is not the only there there-house

In Brief

A swath of Virginia that once relied on supplying smokers need not rely on smokestacks. 

Public-private commissions can test and implement job training projects to hasten the uptake of renewable energy. 

This memo spells out how leaders can parley resilience from one economic transition to bound to the front of another one. 

TO: Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission
The Honorable James W Morefield, Vice – Chair
Virginia’s tobacco region is uniquely qualified to not only join, but lead, the transition to renewable energy for businesses and individuals. By taking a leading role in renewable energy options, the region will have a unique economic driver that will benefit the entire region.
Having faced challenges in the past, you know how to overcome the obstacles inherent to change.  In 1999, the region saw a shift from economic dependency on tobacco products and pursued a cooperative effort through the Commission to create opportunities for investment and education that allowed the region to move to diverse economic opportunities.
Across the Commonwealth and the globe, we know that a change from relying solely on fossil fuels must happen.  While we can disagree on some of the nuances of what and when, there is a consensus that renewable energies are a vital component of the energy mix.
Yet progress looks uneven. In 2007, The Virginia General Assembly passed incentive plans to encourage utilities to implement renewable energy portfolios.  According to the Virginia State Corp Commission, only Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power report these portfolios. Through its leadership, priorities and programs, the Commission has over two decades of experience working with economic shifts.  It is through this experience that it can play a vital role in energy transformation and security for the Commonwealth.
There are three key areas where the VRRTC already participates and can be instrumental leaders in renewable energy. I name them and suggest strategies next. 
Emphasize renewable energy in training programs.  The current Education Grant Program emphasizes job skills and certificate programs.  These allow individuals from existing job sectors to retrain and allow new workers to enter the job market ready to contribute.  A ready workforce is key to attracting the renewable manufacturers, designers, installers and ongoing maintenance needs for the area’s renewable energy.
Financial incentives through targeted lending products. The Commission can create partnerships with lending institutions wherein VRRTC shares some risk to create a loan specific to renewable energy for investments in the region for both new construction and renovation of existing sites.  Business and Community lending is listed as a Funding Priority in the strategic plan from FY 2020 – 2022.  Going forward, specific efforts to renewables will assist in the affordability.  This also aligns with the goal of Industrial and business infrastructure.
Staff expertise and outreach. Dedicated staff that understands renewable energy and the role it can play in the region can wring success from challenging business conditions. By providing expertise on the subject, the Commission will show that renewables are not just viable, but desirable.  Having a champion in the office that can dispel myths and work with project leaders will make assure that renewables are considered as part of the dialogue for construction and revitalization in the region.
Apprehension to change is natural.  As leaders who have come through one economic transition, The Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission has the knowledge and resources to provide a steady hand through another.   As a region that produced 11.3 million short tons of bituminous coal [Virginia Energy tonnage reports], the overlap with the tobacco region creates an opportunity to show that renewables are needed.  By providing this leadership, the Commission can position itself at the forefront of the movement and bring Virginia into the future.