The University of Kentucky announced a $24 million effort Wednesday to harness the brain power of Kentucky's eight public universities to diversify and develop the economies of the state's struggling coalfields.
The National Science Foundation's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research awarded $20 million to UK, and the state's EPSCoR program threw in $4 million to support the project, called "Powering the Kentucky Bioeconomy for a Sustainable Future."
The money will be used to create new research infrastructure, hire faculty and researchers and train more students in science and technological fields.
"This is the route of innovation and discovery," said UK President Eli Capilouto, who announced the grant alongside a roster of politicians, including Gov. Steve Beshear, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and U.S. Rep. Andy Barr. Capilouto called the grant "an incredible level of support and new statewide partnership in our efforts to improve the energy, environmental and industrial economies of Kentucky."
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Rodney Andrews, director of UK's Center for Applied Energy Research, will direct the work among the state's universities, plus community and technical colleges in Lexington and Prestonsburg.
The grant, which is to support 150 jobs over the next five years, will focus on three research areas: chemical biology for advanced materials, which can help biofuel manufacturing processes; advanced-membrane technologies, which have broad applications for energy production and water purification; and electrochemical energy storage.
Schools will use the grant money in various ways. For example, the University of Louisville's Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research will receive $4.2 million, hiring at least three faculty members to work on energy storage. Officials said seven to 10 doctoral students will work on the project.
Organizers insisted that the work will help, rather than supplant, Kentucky's traditional energy source, coal.
"What we're looking at here are things that complement the coal industry," Andrews said. They include possible carbon-capture technology for coal-fired power plants. "I'm agnostic about energy. ... We are going to struggle to meet energy demands. We need to develop all of our technological options if we're going to deliver affordable energy to people in the state."
Still, the grant was explicit in acknowledging the economic and cultural struggles of Kentucky's mining counties, citing "significant challenges" as the economy "transitions from traditional coal mining to renewable resources."
Eastern Kentucky has seen a crippling drop in coal jobs since 2011. Average estimated coal employment in the region during the second quarter of this year was 7,294, down from 14,716 during the second quarter of 2009.
A variety of factors have combined to hamstring coal in the region, including competition from natural gas and from cheaper coal mined elsewhere in the country, tougher federal rules to protect air and water quality, and the depletion of easy-to-reach reserves after a century of mining.
Coal has been a big topic in the U.S. Senate race. McConnell and his rival, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, have tried to woo Eastern Kentuckians with competing narratives about who is more loyal to the coal industry and its workers.
McConnell confined his remarks Wednesday to the federal grant process and declined to take questions afterward.
"Universities are having to compete for peer-reviewed funds, and it's pretty darned exciting, Dr. Capilouto, to see this kind of thing coming to Kentucky through a peer-reviewed process," McConnell said. "I think we're in a better position to compete now than we ever were."
He also commended the grant's focus on science and technology education, and he spoke of the nation's deficit in producing enough scientists and researchers.
"Which is really a shame because we'd like to see those jobs go to Kentuckians," he said.
The research project announced Wednesday will fit in well with SOAR, the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative to gather ideas for transforming the economy of Eastern Kentucky, said state Rep. Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, who attended the announcement on UK's campus.
"This has the potential to really produce really good jobs in Eastern Kentucky," Adkins said of the grant, pointing to research and development of biomass products that Kentucky could produce.
Biomass, such as wood or switchgrass, can be burned for energy, Andrews said, but researchers want to find more efficient ways to convert it into fuels through chemical processes, and make it more competitive with other energy sources.
Beshear said he thinks the research will help find ways to burn coal more cleanly, "but it's also going to allow us to expand into other areas, like biomass.
"We've got to have an all-of-the-above energy strategy in Kentucky and in the country," he said. "That doesn't preclude one form of energy, but it includes all forms of energy."
Beshear said he hopes to someday lift the state's ban on nuclear energy, which used to be seen as "being disloyal to coal, but I think we're getting past that."
Andrews said the new grant was far from typical.
"This program is directed at putting the best minds we have toward solving major questions in Kentucky," he said. "Our focus is on how do we improve our economy, how do we embrace what we have, how do we create jobs in our rural areas, and most importantly how do we invest in the people who will take us forward from here?"