POWER for Transition: Investment in Coal Communities through the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) Initiative
This report offers a retrospective analysis of the Obama administration's POWER Initiative to help energy-dependent communities in transition.
This report examines implementation of the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) Initiative (2015–2020), established by the Obama administration to assist communities hurt by declines in coal mining and coal-fired electricity generation. It examines the distribution of POWER funds by state, county, project type, and career sectors. The lessons learned through this retrospective analysis can be used to guide current and future federal policymaking to revitalize the economies of US coal communities.
The POWER Initiative was a collaboration across several federal entities, with four agencies playing primary roles: the Economic Development Administration (EDA), the Employment and Training Administration (ETA), the Small Business Administration (SBA), and the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). Grants were awarded for projects that would benefit communities affected by employment loss in coal and associated industries.
We developed a novel data set of grant recipients, and we identified 641 coal counties across the United States, based on the presence of coal production or a coal-fired power plant in recent decades (Section 3). Those criteria, along with direct coal mining job loss and ARC’s economic status classification, allow for comparison of counties with potential need and the actual distribution of funds.
Between 2015 and 2020, POWER provided $410 million through 484 grants awarded across 200 counties in 30 states (Section 5). ARC administered around 60 percent of total funding, and EDA, just under 40 percent. More than 75 percent of the funding went to five Appalachian states: Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia. Appalachia, which has faced serious challenges from the energy transition, is the focus of all ARC grants. The amounts awarded to grantees within a county varied substantially, ranging from $30,000 to $15.9 million over the five-year period.
The majority of coal counties did not receive POWER grants; only 200 of the 641 coal counties received POWER funds directly. Moreover, only 134 of the 200 counties that received POWER funding were coal counties, and 28 percent of funding was granted to applicants outside coal counties. However, we could not identify all the communities served by every project and therefore assigned funding according to the location of the primary grantee. Since grantees sometimes serve communities beyond the county in which they are located, it is possible that more coal counties benefited than our research indicates.
In general, we find low levels of federal funding explicitly designed to support communities impacted by the decline of coal (there are other federal programs that benefit coal communities, but not much is explicitly tailored to coal community transition). For example, if we divide total 2015 – 2020 POWER funds identified through our research by all 641 eligible coal counties, each county would have received under $640,000 over the five-year period.
We also classified grants by six project types (Section 6): education and workforce development; business development; economic asset development; health; research, planning, and feasibility studies; and leadership and community capacity development. Education and workforce development projects received the greatest amount of POWER funds ($165.5 million), followed by business development ($160.7 million) and economic asset development ($83.1 million).
More than half of all POWER funding went to projects with an infrastructure component (Section 7). The top three infrastructure funding categories were building construction or renovation ($89.2 million), water and wastewater ($51.9 million), broadband ($39.4 million), and equipment and materials ($33.7 million).
By career sector (Section 8), the top spending categories were manufacturing ($102.6 million), health and social services, including substance abuse prevention and treatment ($81.2 million), tourism and hospitality ($42.9 million), information technology ($40.0 million), and agriculture and forestry ($33.4 million). Renewable energy; arts, design, and entertainment; and education and public service received little funding and are potential future areas of growth.
The report reveals the counties and project types that were prioritized in the POWER Initiative. It also indicates the possibility that little funding flowed to some particularly distressed coal communities. Further analysis is needed to elucidate whether this reflects a lack of capacity in local economic assistance programs, a lack of need, or (as noted above) data limitations. A deeper understanding of these gaps will allow future initiatives to holistically support communities across the country.
Wesley Look is a senior research associate at RFF. His work focuses on fairness for workers and communities in transition.
Sophie Pesek is a research analyst for the Climate Risks and Impacts and Adaptation and Resilience programs at RFF.
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