Last month, the Nuclear Communities Technical Assistance team hosted the virtual event Building Economic Resilience in Energy Host Communities: A Nuclear Communities Forum. The event was split into two days and covered topics including economic development, from economic diversification and development to community engagement and what to expect for nuclear host communities in the future. The Nuclear Communities team and 15 fantastic speakers provided an overview of the current environment for energy host communities.
What we heard on Day 1: Strategic economic development approaches for energy host communities
Expert speakers shared strategies for building the strength of local economies that are dependent on energy-producing facilities.
Money, money, money
At the forum, experts emphasized the importance of securing grant funding before a plant closure occurs. This preparation helps mitigate the economic shock that typically follows the closure of a plant, and grants with steady funding streams allow communities to focus on planning for a post-plant future without dipping too heavily into their current profits. Our speakers noted that this funding should be used for visioning, comprehensive analysis, and additional activities such as community education, relationship-building with plant operators, and identifying shifts in the makeup of the local workforce. These activities should be conducted with the ultimate goal of workforce development, procuring investment, and overall economic diversification. Many energy host communities don’t have the capacity to apply and manage large, complex grants on their own, so hiring consultants or specialists is an important tactic to advance local economic development initiatives. The aforementioned studies can lead to new industry development recommendations, such as where and what to invest in based on the current workforce, resources, and skills.
Build a strong, regional base
Shifts in a community’s major employer, such as a power plant, can have impacts that reverberate not only within jurisdictional boundaries but across the region. Large plants, such as nuclear, hydrogen, coal, and hydro facilities, provide jobs for people beyond the borders of the town it’s located in. Members of the workforce hold unique skills that are highly specialized and relatively highly paid—resources that would leave an area when a plant closes or begins decommissioning. Further, when these employees leave, so do their families. This impacts housing values, property and school taxes, and secondary jobs. Sound economic policy indicates that a region shouldn’t be dependent on one industry for the majority of its economic growth, and cultivating synergistic industries alongside power plants can help retain this valuable workforce and their families beyond closure.
“Successful regions will use closure as an opportunity to fold skilled labor into high-growth categories rather than accept population flight.” –Michael Rodriguez, Director of Research, Smart Growth America
Communication (and translation) is key
Planning and implementing any new economic development plans must be intentional and coordinated. This means involving the community early and often in planning processes. Educational events such as conferences, workshops, and open houses can inform community members of the coming changes and introduce them to representatives from the utility or plant operator. This also involves cultivating spaces, allowing for interactions between stakeholders that may not happen naturally.
What we heard on Day 2: The road ahead for nuclear host communities
Day 2 discussions focused on what communities can expect from developing new nuclear technologies such as small modular reactors (SMRs), plants that use different fuel types and coolants, and the future of spent nuclear waste.
The future is (somewhat) unknown
There are more questions than answers about the future of nuclear technology. Nuclear power is one of the most dependable, steady sources of renewable energy on the market, and its potential is still mostly untapped and unknown. This uncertainty for host communities is difficult, especially when attempting to foster economic development, as investors and planners look for certainty before investing in local markets. Developing partnerships across private and public sectors—especially in fields related to nuclear technologies like chip manufacturing plants and spent fuel facilities—is vital to understanding this complex, dynamic market, identifying investment opportunities, and planning strategies for economic diversification. The economic downturn that occurred in many coal communities isn’t preordained for nuclear communities, but we must learn from their experiences to avoid these outcomes.
When opposition arises, educate, don’t fight
It is often necessary to build local support for an energy-producing facility. While some in the environmental movement have been at odds with nuclear energy since its inception, the need for low-carbon energy sources, and the fact that nuclear is an extremely efficient option, is beginning to shift the conversation. Advocates for new nuclear generation should see this as an opportunity to broaden the conversation and seek partnerships and potential allies. Cultivating a wider base of stakeholders near the beginning of this transition can position the energy market to be more robust and resilient in the future.
“These [nuclear host communities] have a high energy IQ. You don’t need to teach them the basics of nuclear energy, you need to involve them in decision-making processes.” –Sharon Fain, Vice President of Rocky Mountain Power (Wyoming Branch)
“All politics are local” is especially true in energy host communities
Previous decisions regarding the location of energy facilities may not have adequately taken into consideration the needs and interests of the local community. Fostering a relationship between the local utility, plant operator, and the community is vital to ensuring that residents have a seat at the table when big decisions are made. There is no shortcut for the time it takes to do community engagement—start early and repeat often.
Funding exists to support the inclusion of nuclear energy in the national renewable energy mix, and more is coming in the future
Nuclear energy will be part of the new national grid mix. It is a reliable, steady energy source that can handle both peaks and lulls in energy demand, unlike solar or wind. Engaging with the private sector, learning about new nuclear technologies, and taking advantage of federal funds can help energy host communities prepare for a renewable energy-based future.
The end of an energy plant’s operational life does not mean the end of the site or the community
Energy plant site redevelopment (a type of brownfield redevelopment) is a relatively new investment option. These sites have significant potential and could host other energy-production facilities such as solar farms, be used as recreational land or nature preserves, or attract complementary sectors and employers to the community.
Learn more about the speakers at the Building Economic Resilience in Energy Host Communities Forum, and take a peek at the funding currently available for communities that host power plants from the Economic Development Administration (EDA).