State of the Region sticks to status quo, little on renewable energy

Blog post written for the UpGrade e-newsletter by Mathew Roberts, Info and Outreach Director

The 6th annual Appalachian Ohio State of the Region conference, titled “A New Era in Economic Resiliency”, was held Tuesday, May 23 as a showcase of current and future trends in economic activity for the 30+ counties within the Appalachian Ohio region.

The program was supported by Ohio University’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) University Center and sponsored by the Appalachian Partnership for Economic Growth. The gathering highlighted the need for cooperation among the region’s development districts and commissions to work to build pathways for industry-driven economic resiliency.

Jason Jolley, the Director of the EDA University Center, noted that there was a crucial need to change the narrative and perception of the Appalachian Ohio footprint. He shared with the audience graphics of books and media coverage that depicted the region in a negative light. One book, “Glass House: The 1% Economy And The Shattering Of The All-American Town” chronicles the danger of the too-big-to-fail global economic system that turned a once-bustling community (Lancaster, Ohio) into a haven for drug abuse and brought with it an overall downturn in the local economy – illuminating the vulnerabilities of rural America.

Jolley continued with similar stories about the perception and real problems facing the region, and ended his introduction with a call to change the narrative. However, the problems that Lancaster has faced may soon trickle in to the rest of the Appalachian Ohio territory. Though glass is no longer the hot-ticket industry, the boom of shale play for oil and gas in Eastern Ohio is just as susceptible to a global fossil-fuel trading system that could leave communities behind.

While the boom of horizontal drilling (fracking) continues to run it’s course, the presentations by industry professionals in coal, oil and gas, and wood processing seemed unmoved by the potential threats. As an attendee, you may have walked out with more confidence than ever that coal will be making a comeback (not likely), the boom of fracking will be sustained (price is dictated by oil-heavy nations and production value), and the wood industry could find value streams to support the communities with the resource (though most of the finished product leaves the region). But what if things change? What if even the industries that were touted to be supported by the three main industries represented (coal, oil/gas, wood) are no longer viable if the Big 3 change? What innovations have we yet to explore that might provide long-term resilience to Appalachia?

Though Ohio is a leading state for wind and solar industry manufacturing, there was little to no discussion about the renewable energy supply chain. If nearly 200 countries, and the United States remains one of them, support the Paris climate agreement, then shouldn’t we be focused on the industries that will help curb global warming? Those are renewable energy, non-traditional forest and open land products, sustainable agriculture, watershed restoration, and material re-use and re-purposing.

Renewable energy was mentioned briefly by adjunct assistant professor Gilbert Michaud of the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, but they were not lifted up as a vital economic development strategy even though the rest of the world is moving swiftly on grid modernization, solar and wind deployment, and electric car infrastructure. Climate change is global threat, and it was surprising to see leaders in the Appalachian Ohio region continue a “status quo” strategy. Not only do we need to change the narrative, we need to create the narrative. We need to have the courage to see the opportunity these emerging renewable industries can have for our region.