"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."
That oft-repeated quote came to mind as I read the Herald-Leader's May 22 story on the declining population in Breathitt County and most all of Eastern Kentucky. We have been conducting economic development in Eastern Kentucky the same way since I can remember — chasing low-skill, low-wage jobs and being content when we land, in the old days, that sewing factory.
We can't continue to think like that and expect the results to be any different.
Wayne Gretzky said, "A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be." He should know. He was one of the greatest ever.
In this case, the puck is the economy and the ice rink is Eastern Kentucky. We need to try to examine where the puck is going to be.
Gov. Paul Patton was correct in his assertion that there are knowledge-based jobs to be found in Appalachia. We need to foster more growth in health care, technology and professional services to meet the needs of an increasingly aging population that will require those very services.
But there are other opportunities to create a new blue-collar economy that can support and sustain those for whom higher education is not an option. Woody biomass renewable energy is becoming a reality in Eastern Kentucky. Our company, ecoPower Generation, will build a 58 megawatt generation plant in Perry County that will create hundreds of construction jobs and support hundreds more in timbering, trucking and plant operations.
We see where the puck is going.
Right now, 38 states have renewable energy portfolio standards or goals, which require electric utilities in those states to use wind, solar, hydro or biomass generation. Since wind and solar won't work commercially in Kentucky, and hydro is an expensive and typically small-scale power source, biomass is the future of renewable energy in the commonwealth.
Kentucky is not one of the 38 states that has a standard or goal, but utilities here are already under a great deal of pressure from regulatory and environmental communities to diversify their generation portfolios.
EcoPower provides an answer in an environmentally sound and cost-competitive manner. Our concept is to use wood waste as the fuel source — chips, sawdust, bark and unmarketable treetops. But more important, it will create and sustain jobs in the region. The project at Hazard's Coal Fields Regional Industrial Park is the first. More will follow.
Coal will always play an important role in our long-term energy solution. As technology changes, the number of jobs will change, too, just as they would with any industry that relies on technological advances to sustain itself — including newspapers. This is not about replacing coal. It's about creating something new to augment power production.
Our little plant in Hazard will generate 58 megawatts of electricity. Kentucky has more than 20,000 megawatts of installed generation capacity. So, if we can build three, four or more plants, it's not going to erode coal's significant place in power generation. But it will create jobs.
Is it the same thing over and over? No. It's the new, entrepreneurial, "out of the box" thinking that will be necessary to reinvent the Eastern Kentucky economy and provide needed infrastructure that will serve as a base for even more growth.
It's a means of creating jobs that Gov. Steve Beshear has embraced. It's a means of building a new economy that might afford Emily Tackett, the young graduate featured in your story, an opportunity for a good-paying job to help with her bills while she builds her photography and art business — her dream.
Shouldn't that be what economic development is all about? Helping young men and women achieve their dreams?
We cannot continue business as usual. We cannot allow a few well-positioned political officeholders to hold hostage the economic growth and development of Eastern Kentucky — and perhaps, all of Kentucky. But above it all, we cannot force Emily and the thousands who graduated with her out of the area they call home just to survive.
That's a life cycle that can and should end now.