Congress, Education, Energy, Environment

Focus Forward symposium: West Virginia ready to launch new energy future, and prosper

MORGANTOWN – West Virginia is poised to profit from a new energy future. The key is drawing, training and keeping the people to make it happen, a variety of experts said Wednesday during the fifth annual Focus Forward symposium, organized by the West Virginia Public Education Collaborative and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.

“I really believe this is West Virginia’s time,” said WVU President Gordon Gee, noting the danger is we could squander the moment.

He touted Universities United, putting the state’s higher education institutions on the same page instead of competing with each other. The question arises, speakers said: “Are we training the right people to do the right things?”

As part of the same “fireside chat” on Energizing Leadership for the Future, Sen. Joe Manchin said, “We are on the cusp of really exploding with all different forms of energy.” We’re not done with coal, he pointed out – it will have more value with new technologies being explored — but there’s also hydrogen and advanced nuclear.

The day’s topic was how West Virginia benefits from diversifying its energy portfolio to prepare for a competitive workforce in a global economy.

Marshall University President Brad Smith talked about education and cited the maxim that innovation requires inspiration and execution. West Virginians have both qualities. “We have always answered the call.”

He talked about the need for “design thinking” in education, defined by the Ideo group as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

“Design thinking teaches you to fall in love with the problem, not your idea,” Smith said — it begins broad, with diverging idea proposals before going narrow with converging solutions. “We have to build that into our education system.”

Companies follow talent, Smith said, therefore we must consider what communities need to attract and keep talent. West Virginia has what people want – outdoor recreation, scenic beauty and more – and that’s part of the reason for the success of the Ascend WV program. The program — which pays remote workers to relocate to the Mountain State — expects 1,000 such workers to move here in next five years, not counting their families.

Turning specifically to energy, Manchin talked about his work in the Senate, starting with the Energy Act and continuing with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and most recently the Inflation Reduction Act.

He repeated his belief, “You cannot eliminate your way to a clean environment. You can innovate your way.” The IRA lays a path to produce more fossil energy over the next 10 years while developing renewables into something more reliable.

The regional PJ grid, he said, is powered by about one-third coal and West Virginia is the backbone of that system. But as we move to net-zero carbon, hydrogen will become the new heavy lifter. “It has the horsepower to run the country.”

While the Biden administration is pushing electric vehicles, he said, the U.S. is too reliant on China for that technology. “I want manufacturing back here, I don’t want to depend on China.”

West Virginia, he said, is the best-prepared state for one of the Department of Energy’s hydrogen hubs. “I think West Virginia is the place that will show the best return on investment for energy.” Advanced nuclear can repurpose defunct coal plants. Rare earth elements for battery technology can come from coal mine waste. “There’s a lot of places that wont accept the things we’re going to do.”

But we need a secure border, he said, with a proper corridor for people to come in and earn their way, we need to maintain the support of our allies, and we need to keep our financial house in order.

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