Lessons from Britain’s Appalachia?

Grist’s Jonathan Hiskes wrote recently about Wales, dubbed ‘Britain’s Appalachia’, and its intentional journey towards a post-coal future. While Hiskes makes a few surprising comments, including the suggestion that U.S. coal-dependent communities differ from Welsh communities because they “just haven’t hit the rough patch yet”, the model of an economic transition beyond coal is certainly of interest to Appalachian and other coalfield communities.

Hiskes indentifies several key elements of infrastructure, like Cardiff’s rejuvenated waterfront and a landmark historic building, that appear to be key anchors in creating what is essentially a tourist-oriented new economy. Additionally significant are local restaurants and craft beer establishments that Hiskes notes in the comments section of his original article are a significant element of attracting travelers, referencing a Washington Post piece calling Wales the ‘greenest place on Earth’. Together, the historic buildings and local dining resources create a celebration of place that acknowledges the historic legacy of coal, but also seeks to create a future that goes beyond mining.

Acknowledging that his interest in Wales did not stem from a burning desire to learn about the communities there, Hiskes says “I didn’t go because I was interested in Wales, no disrespect. I went to learn about the future of West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, and other coal-dependent parts of the United States.” The experience he had during a his brief trip highlighted key, relevant aspects of the Welsh transition for a possible American one.

The backbone of the Welsh transition is, in a word, cleantech. Hiskes writes of Wales’ exploration into tidal and wave power systems that “even in its early stages, the Welsh cleantech project offers lessons for what other mining regions can do to ease their transition away from coal. For one, Welsh leaders aren’t looking for quick fixes. They’re thinking long-term.” Such long-term perspective allows Wales to think beyond the promises of wind and solar into developing energy systems that would thrive on Wales’ long coastlines.

Part of this long-term strategy includes seeking help in models outside Wales’ borders, as well as making use of the intellectual resources located in the established universities of the region. The research agenda, focused on low carbon energy sources, is motivated by a ambitious policy goal of cutting Welsh carbon emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2020. That’s not to say this transition process has been easy or even smooth. The construction of two new power plants—one biomass, and the other liquefied-natural-gas—were not planned with an eye towards closing the system loops and maximizing efficiencies in the form of capturing and reusing waste heat. Future plans to take such efficiency opportunities into account will help Wales meet the aggressive carbon reduction goals.

Though the Assembly of Wales has embraced sustainability in a significant way – even incorporating an element of sustainability into the constitution – Hiskes takes the time to point out that this transition away from fossil fuels was not one prompted by lofty ideals, but rather a reaction to a structural economic change that left the region searching for new economic drivers. If you believe the studies that show coal resources are declining and that production (and thus jobs) will decrease in the near to medium future, it just may be that the Welsh transition model—complete with political, economic and community support—is one worth considering for Appalachia.


Kristin Tracz

About Kristin Tracz

Kristin Tracz served MACED’s Research and Policy team from 2009-2012 working on clean energy policy, energy efficiency programs and the Appalachian Transition Initiative. She joined MACED after finishing her Master of Environmental Management degree at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. She now lives and works in Washington, DC.