Anyone who doubts that West Virginia’s economy is changing perhaps missed yet another announcement of exciting news. The United Mine Workers of America union has signed a memorandum of understanding with SPARKZ, a startup company that plans to make electric batteries. That agreement will allow the company to recruit and train 350 or more dislocated miners to work at its planned factory at a yet-to-be-disclosed location in West Virginia.
No one would accuse the UMWA of giving up on the coal industry. The union still is dedicated to putting as many of its members to work in as many mines as possible. But union leaders have recognized that not all the mining jobs lost in states like West Virginia are going to come back. And those that do won’t necessarily be in the same areas where jobs have been lost.
That’s why UMWA President Cecil Roberts said in May, when the agreement with SPARKZ was announced, that it would be “a win-win for the laid-off coal miners” who will work in the new facility, as well as their families and communities. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., called it “proof that there is an important role” for the union as the nation’s energy mix continues an unrelenting transition.
That transition doesn’t mark the end of coal, but it is part of a switch to a so-called “all-of-the-above” energy approach. No longer can a state like West Virginia depend solely on the boom-bust cycles of one industry, such as coal mining. Many companies considering West Virginia for its development efforts are demanding a broad energy mix that includes renewable sources of energy, such as wind and solar power. Battery storage is needed to make such forms of energy more reliable and economical.
Joe Manchin, who is chairman of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has pledged his support for that “all-of-the-above” energy approach. Like the UMWA, Manchin does not intend to give up on coal, but he wants West Virginia workers to have more options. If that doesn’t happen in West Virginia, it will happen in other states and other countries.
These days, when global conflict has led to record-high energy prices, many politicians say the United States needs to be energy independent. Diversification of energy sources is the best way to do that. Those who don’t see that are sticking their heads in the sand and refusing to see the world as it is changing.
West Virginia can’t afford to be left behind.
Bolts Willis is president of United Mine Workers of America Local 8843 at Cannelton, West Virginia.