Can drones save coal country?

Among the many promises which President Trump made on the campaign trail was a pledge to save coal mining jobs and bring that industry back to life. While we’ve seen some small movement in that aspect of the energy industry, it’s been painfully slow and may in fact wind up stalling out. In southwestern Virginia there are coal towns which are well on their way to turning into ghost towns and the people there are looking for alternate solutions. That’s a tall order to fill, but in Wise County the locals have come up with one idea which might provide at least a bit of relief. As you may recall from not too long ago, this sparsely populated rural area was the site of Amazon’s first sanctioned drone delivery. The nature of the terrain in this region makes it ideal for such testing, and if this is the location for performing such experiments, why not move more of the related industry and infrastructure into the area as well? Or at least that’s the plan. (Roanoke Times)

[Jack] Kennedy is Wise County’s elected circuit court clerk. But the lifelong space enthusiast and former state lawmaker has a hand in all corners of local government — especially economic development.

He acknowledges that the drone industry won’t grow large enough to replace all the jobs lost in the downturn. But it’s a start, he said. He said he wants to see a plan rolled out in three phases.

First, Kennedy said, the county needs to train a small army of drone pilots so they can pass Federal Aviation Administration certification tests, part of a relatively new system that offers a first-movers advantage.

Once Wise County has a sizable group of trained drone pilots and mechanics, Kennedy said, the county can recruit companies to take advantage of that expertise, along with the region’s sparsely populated acreage.

Stories such as this no doubt lead to questions about why the coal industry isn’t “roaring back” as some had hoped. The fact is that this is not for a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the new administration nor renewed activity in the energy sector. The oil and gas industry is currently undergoing a renaissance which is great news on the jobs front as well as enhancing our national security and strengthening our international diplomatic position. But when you talk about “oil and gas” it’s the second half of that formula which is causing problems for coal country. Natural gas production has surged so much that prices are exceedingly low and stockpiles are plentiful. The industry had already begun shifting its footing, with many coal-fired plants prematurely switching over to natural gas. There is little incentive for anyone to switch back or to open new coal-fired plants when natural gas is such an attractive alternative.

That means that the jobs which formerly kept places like Wise County thriving may either never return or at least not come back soon enough to save communities such as these which are falling on very hard times. So can a deep dive into the drone industry save them? Their own County executives admit that the technology sector will probably never replace all of the jobs that were lost when the coal mines closed, but it could go a fair ways. If they can interest the tech sector into starting up some development and production facilities in this region as well as doing their testing there it could produce significant results. To make the area even more attractive Wise County has partnered with the University of Virginia to begin producing more engineers and tech sector graduates so that the local population might be seen as fertile ground for building a workforce without needing to import all of the talent.

This sort of evolution is something which will happen over years, not months, but it’s worth keeping an eye on. If Wise County can do it, maybe some other languishing parts of coal country can follow that pattern and experience a similar renewal.