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EPA rules may zap Kentucky jobs, but not coal jobs

Lump of coal

Coal mining accounts for fewer than 12,000 jobs in Kentucky, compared to more than 220,000 manufacturing jobs-- many of which have been drawn to the state by low electric rates, which depend on inexpensive coal power.

Geothermal pond at Fort Knox

What looks like a decorative pond at Fort Knox is actually the heart of a geothermal cooling system for the server farm powering the Army's human resources database. Water piped from the air-conditioning system gets cooled to 57 degrees at the bottom of the 25-foot-deep pond, then returns to the building, saving $10,000 a month.

The Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan, unveiled in June, requires every state to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants. But some states have tougher assignments than others. On paper, Kentucky’s target is among the most lenient. However, the state’s near-total reliance on coal means it may be hit especially hard by the plan’s costs.

But first, a counter-example: One of Kentucky’s bigger cities, home to more than 20,000 people, a shiny green spot on the state's coal-black energy map, is Fort Knox.

Robert “R.J.” Dyrdek is energy manager at the army base, which has cut its energy use by 51 percent. He shows off a solar array, a geothermal pond — which prompts an unusual boast: "We have the best dirt," he says. "Simply put, it exchanges energy very well." — and a base-wide smart-thermostat system. Technicians monitor temperature and energy performance in every room on base, and tweak them in real time.

But Fort Knox has advantages that the rest of Kentucky can’t match. As Dyrdek says, "If you don’t have the dirt and the facilities, you can’t do it." Kentucky has the dirt, but not a completely planned, centralized, and self-contained economy and infrastructure.  

Instead, Kentucky has politics — and the image of whole communities making a living from coal-mining has iconic power. So, coal has been a hot issue in Kentucky's senate race, which could make or break longtime Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

Here’s one of his ads:

His Democratic opponent has also taken a pro-coal stance — including a radio ad that hammers President Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

But the loss of coal jobs isn’t necessarily the big economic threat. Kentucky only has about 12,000 coal-mining jobs left. Manufacturing provides more than 220,000.

"Most often what you hear about jobs in Kentucky are the loss of the  mining jobs," says John Lyons, the state’s assistant secretary for climate policy. "But these manufacturing jobs — the reason we have the manufacturing jobs we do is because of our low electricity rates."  

Kentucky has some big auto, stainless steel, and aluminum plants  — all of which take a lot of electricity. Thanks to cheap coal power, Kentucky’s electric rates are among the lowest in the country.  

"That why those facilities come here, and they bring very good paying jobs with them," says Lyons. Complying with the clean power plan will likely force those rates up. And Lyons thinks some of the jobs may then go away.  

About the author

Dan is a sustainability reporter for Marketplace.
Geothermal pond at Fort Knox

What looks like a decorative pond at Fort Knox is actually the heart of a geothermal cooling system for the server farm powering the Army's human resources database. Water piped from the air-conditioning system gets cooled to 57 degrees at the bottom of the 25-foot-deep pond, then returns to the building, saving $10,000 a month.

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