Climate Corner: Transition to renewable energy — environmental and economic renewal

Jul 29, 2023

George Banziger

A recurrent myth in the Mid-Ohio Valley is that the transition to renewable energy from fossil fuels has to be painful and fraught with job loss, economic decline, and sacrifice. This assumption cannot be further from the truth. It is possible and within our grasp to take charge of our economy and promote job creation with new manufacturing powered by renewable energy while also addressing the accelerating problem of human-caused climate change. The need to address climate change is strikingly compelling in light of the extreme weather being experienced all around the northern hemisphere this summer.

For too long advocates of fossil fuels have led us to believe that coal and oil and now natural gas will lead central Appalachia (western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio. West Virginia, and eastern Kentucky) to economic prosperity. This promise has not been fulfilled in the past and will not in the future. Very little of the billions of dollars invested and revenue generated in natural gas extraction have helped the local economy in this region. A study by the Ohio Valley Research Institute (O’Leary, 2021) has shown that central Appalachia trails the U.S., in general, on measures of economic prosperity such as personal income and net economic growth. This pattern is largely due to the fact that oil and gas extraction is a capital-intensive business. The revenue, community benefit, and jobs with natural gas have not accrued to our region.

Opportunities exist which build upon recovery from extractive industries and align with new growth in renewable energy to benefit our local communities. One example is the manufacture of “eco bricks,” which are produced from coal ash, a biproduct of burning coal. It is estimated that there are 161 coal ash ponds in Appalachia (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2021). This coal ash, if left untended can lead to acid mine drainage and sulfuric acid. When coal ash is combined with some sand, lime, and gypsum, it can produce a composite construction material (aka “eco bricks”) that is stronger and has less of a carbon footprint than standard Portland cement (Ohio River Valley Institute, 2021).

Another opportunity for economic growth involving coal ash relates to the demanding need for rare earth elements (REE) for battery production and other applications needed for the new renewable energy technologies. Currently, 70% of REE come from China. It is possible to derive REE from coal ash (Water Research Institute, WVU, 2022), it is difficult to extract, but it is likely that research directed at the issue can address this problem in the near future.

There is also “mass timber,” a sustainable alternative to concrete and steel; mass timber is made from solid wood panels (derived from trees that are sustainably harvested) nailed or glued together; they are fire resistant, strong, sustainable, and cost efficient. There is industrial hemp, an alternative to plastic, which can be grown on damaged lands. And there are many options for industry around waste recovery, such as using recycled glass to make insulation. The science of battery technology is growing rapidly, and large batteries are in great demand for the rapidly expanding production of electric vehicles. There is also the need to cap orphaned oil and gas wells–a labor-intensive enterprise.

All of these ideas can be developed in West Virginia and throughout Appalachia with locally owned businesses and with the help of federal stimulus programs that are currently available.

There is an innovative project right now on our own doorstep in Mid-Ohio Valley. Thanks to the foresight and diligence of Jesse Roush, executive director of the Southeast Ohio Port Authority, and an innovative international company called SAI, a research and development center focused on heat exchange is being established just south of Marietta. The new center is based on the utilization of heat generated from computer chips, which is recycled to replace natural gas as a heat source for applications in agriculture, fish hatcheries, and residences. Tao Wu, Director of the Heat Recycling Center, is leading efforts to develop multiple computing heat recycle projects, which will benefit the community. The new facility, located on Gravel Bank Road in Warren Township, already has a greenhouse under construction, which can provide vegetables and other crops during winter months for the local community. The opening event for the center will take place on Aug. 9 from 2-5 p.m. (check local news media for details).


George Banziger, Ph..D., was a faculty member at Marietta College and an academic dean at three other colleges. Now retired, he is a volunteer for Harvest of Hope and a member of the Green Sanctuary Committee of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Marietta, Citizens Climate Lobby, and of the Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action team.