One of the biggest speed bumps on the road to solving climate change is reducing the mining and burning of coal. And one of the biggest roadblocks to closing coal companies is finding jobs for all the people who will be put out of work.
One organization working to help communities in coal country grow their economies amidst the industry’s downturn is the Just Transition Fund (JTF). JTF helps communities access federal funds allocated for the building of broadband Internet access.
Next week, the Just Transition Fund will announce a new initiative focused on supporting eight essential broadband projects in six states representing coal communities: West Virginia, Illinois, Colorado, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Wyoming, as well as the Navajo Nation in Arizona. It seeks to leverage about $700,000 in combined philanthropic investments to convert $59 million in federal funding and subsidies into broadband infrastructure, which it expects will connect more than 52,000 households in affected communities.
“A lot of rural America is isolated by this lack of broadband access and it’s a classic market failure that private corporations haven’t gone in and built the access,” said Heidi Binko, co-founder and executive director of JTF. “Without community intervention, it’s just too expensive for ISPs to serve these rural areas.”
The U.S. government is making billions of dollars of funding available for broadband infrastructure projects. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, better known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, is allocating $65 billion to ensure that every American has access to reliable high-speed Internet. This historic investment in broadband infrastructure deployment is expected to close the digital divide – a big problem hindering economic development in coal communities.
In addition, the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan has already spent or committed more than $25 billion to invest in affordable broadband.
Currently, more than 30 million Americans live in areas with no broadband infrastructure, according to the Administration. This problem particularly affects rural communities throughout the U.S., many of them in the Appalachian coal country.
Since peaking in 2008, U.S. coal production has fallen nearly 56%, while Appalachia’s coal areas, which runs from Pennsylvania to Alabama, saw production plunge by 64%, according to a study by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University, commissioned by the Appalachia Regional Commission.
From 2011 to 2021, coal industry employment in Appalachia tumbled 62%, compared with 49% in the rest of the U.S., said the study. In West Virginia alone coal industry employment plunged 68%.
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, more jobs in the U.S. economy demand broadband access. Meanwhile, the dearth of broadband connectivity in rural communities prevents people from applying for unemployment benefits, participating in distance learning to receive training, as well as applying for jobs.
The Just Transition Fund was founded in 2015 by the Rockefeller Family Fund and the Appalachia Funders Network to help communities access federal funds. Despite large amounts of federal funding for broadband, significant barriers exist, such as local community organizations and governments needing grant writers, and high matching funds requirements.
Since its founding, JTF has invested $15 million to help drive more than $360 million of public investment into communities around the U.S.
Through its broadband initiative, the non-profit provides technical assistance to help local governments submit competitive grant applications to access funds to subsidize the costs of broadband construction
Many of the projects require matching dollars, so JTF acts as an early stage investor. To date, JTF has raised more than $30 million from a variety of investors including Google
Last year, in a pilot program to show proof of concept for the broadband access plan, JTF invested $300,000 to leverage $46.55 million in funding and connect 31,000 unserved and underserved households in West Virginia.
The organization’s goal for 2023 is to raise $10 million with the intent to drive at least $100 million of federal funds into these communities and connect 100,000 households.