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Coal Country Goes Green

2 minute read

Hundreds of coal-fired power plants across the U.S. have shuttered in the face of cheaper alternatives and increasingly tough environmental regulations. But while the closings are a win for clean air, they can devastate local economies.

That’s what could have happened in Alabama’s Jackson County last year, when the Tennessee Valley Authority closed the Widows Creek coal plant. But TVA officials and local development authorities created incentives to attract clean-energy employers to the region, including Google, which agreed to invest $600 million to build a major data center that will run on 100% renewable energy. The Google project is projected to create 100 new jobs, with many expected to go to former coal workers.

The Widows Creek site is just one of hundreds of coal-fired power plants hit by a nationwide shift away from fossil fuels. More than 90 such power plants will likely close in the next quarter-century if President Obama’s climate regulations survive a legal challenge. While Google won’t build a data center for every former coal plant, Jackson County offers a model for other coal-based communities adjusting to a changed world.

“We’re right now in this tug of war in the hearts and minds of Americans when it comes to our energy supply,” says Mary Anne Hitt, a Sierra Club campaigner who worked on the Jackson County transition. “Bringing renewable energy and clean-tech jobs to communities that have long relied on fossil-fuel jobs is really transformational.”

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Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com