In 1998, when Melanie Lawrence gathered her belongings for the university of Tennessee to pursue a degree in Spanish and English, she desired to leave Tazewell country in the dust.
The Virginian Flourished in Knoxville
Her academic performance was a chance to go span and then Brussels for a graduate degree in IL (international law) and IR (international relation). She made her foot-print around the world, spending years aiding refugees on the Ethiopia-Sudan border while doing humanitarian law. She, by 2007, got married to a globetrotter Fernando Protti, residing in the countryside of Washington D.C.
After twelve months, to be exact, she got back at home. The family business that made battery trays for coal-mining tools was looking for leadership from the third generation.
The eldest of four sisters, Protti Lawrence, took herself by surprise when she replied a “yes” to the family’s urge. She knew that a gap between the nation’s capital and Appalachia isn’t fathomed in mere miles.
For a long time, Melanie, president, and Fernando, CEO, have invested their energy in diversifying Lawrence Brothers Inc.’s line beyond coal-related products. Currently, only 10% of its business is coal-related, a sharp and planned drop from 95% in 2008.
“If we had stuck solely with coal, we would be out of business,” Protti-Lawrence said. “You can’t strategically plan or grow if you’re relying on one industry. We made an absolute effort to go beyond our wheelhouse.”
Such grit and innovation inclined an “aha” energy save the moment for Adam Wells of Appalachian Voices and Vivek Shinde Patil of Ascent Virginia.
Both thinkers have been persistent about linking a forgotten slice of their business to the richness of jobs and knowledge, flourishing in the growing renewable energy sector.
Why couldn’t firms in Tazewell and Buchanan areas turn to the export of batteries and other tools that fuel cars in Asia, bring light to the house in California, or store energy generated by wind farms in Europe?
Both thinkers, along with the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority to bring close to $500,000 in state grant to provide help to Lawrence Brothers and some other family-owned firms such as West River Conveyors & Machinery Co., Simmons Equipment Co., and AMR PEMCO inc., to transcend coal-centric commencement.
Likewise, co-leader Wells and Patil aim to attract national and international businesses that are willing to purchase domestically manufactured energy storage products and consider setting a physical presence in southwest Virginia.
Virginia Growth and Opportunity (GO), the 24-members Board, is scheduled to cast a vote on the proposal on March 16. It, in January, was passed by a regional GO council. GO was formed in 2015 to create private-sector jobs in a state long relying on the military and the federal government.
The fervent Wells had scanned the whole of the GO Virginia manual a long ago. Therefore, he would be a vigil to strike when the timing was favorable. Before August, GO Virginia had reimbursed a local market analysis coordinated by the Solar Foundation. A particular report pointed out that the batteries and related casing, electrical components, and accessories as a potential gold mine for job and investment growth.
Those points of the report were a soothing balm for Wells, who has devoted his career to making solar into an economic catalyst in Appalachia. Being the major force behind the creation of the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia five years ago, he carries on guiding an alliance ushering the daunting policy, utility, and cultural impediment to the commercial solar system.
Being the non-profit regional director of his own community and economic development, he knows that the stakes are higher in the battery project. Philanthropists who fund rooftop solar projects are very patient and don’t expect an instant breakthrough. However, Wells knows that the case with taxpayer dollars is different.
“We can’t mess this up,” Said Wells, a knowledgeable county native.
“There’s no room for error because we’re talking about the jobs for our people. If we do it well, we’ll be a piece in the puzzle, figuring out the future of this area for the next 50 years and keeping it from going farther down the drain. We are the ones in the region to do this. I know a lot of people are watching as to whether we will succeed or not,” He added further.
Impact of heeding the talk locally.
Needless to say, Patil’s path to southwest Virginia was challenging than Well’s. Being a college graduate, he emigrated from India to pursue a doctorate in chemical engineering at Ohio University. Having founded two biotechnology startups, he professionally specializes in human and environmental health.
Having moved to Arlington county in 2015 and entering local politics, he started visiting his adopted home state on a listening tour in a short span of time. He finds out that in every poorer pocket sprung a cry for the job.
His desire to construct bridges to employment induced him to co-found Ascent Virginia as a social impact venture, encouraging clean technology and economic development in early 2018. In the same year, he had the first trip of approximately 25 self-funded fellow-up trips to coal country.
“Southwest Virginia has become my second home,” Patil articulated about what he deems his love of labor. “Here, people are so warm-heart and welcoming.” He added a few words.
During his trip, he made a connection with Wells, company leaders, and Jonathan Belcher, executive director of the Virginia coalfield Economic Development Authority. Within a short span of time, they started collaborating with a few other partners on a plan to launch the energy storage project.
In order to beef the current local manufacturers, their primary aim has to be providing practical data-based technical assistance and market diversification opportunities. For many years, the region had a few so-called popular people who made high promises yet departed after evading axes.
“The way ascent operates, we never use the word ‘help’ because it sounds condescending,” Patil expressed. He also expressed that a lot of outsiders enter the region with an extractive motive. “Where we excel is by listening with intent and connecting the dots to facilitate conversations that empower local organizations to take,” Further he said.
Wells puts the baseball analogy to clarify two predominant strategies: one, amid local companies, requires hitting singles and double to keep progress. Other, broader, demand swinging for the fence. Scoring a home run would amount to landing a battery, electrification, or electric vehicle company with reach to markets far and wide.
“It’s a little matchmaking,” Wells enunciated about the latter. “We’ll be finding out which companies have a soft spot in their heart for southwest Virginia.”
At the economic development authority on the home run strategy, Wells and Patil, as GO money can’t make it to market, intends to collaborate with Belcher and his staff.
For example, late last year, the economic development authority made a $1m Renewable Energy Fund to attract businesses and train residents to create more jobs in a flourishing field. Government organizations work on fossil fuel dollars.
“Adam’s baseball analogy is correct,” Belcher contributed. “Single and doubles are what win ball games, so we’d take those as well,” He added.
The eruption of 26 Jobs
An analyst files an application for $486,366 to GO Virginia heralded that the project could create 26 jobs and millions in investment. The needed fund would be acquired from the four targeted companies, the Thompson Charitable Foundation, and share with other project partners.
For instance, the companies would invest in recruiting and training workers, broadening factory and buy equipment.
Even in the absence of matching funds, earmarking approximately $500,000 to create about 200 jobs amounts to spending around $25,000 per job.
Belcher points out that those figures are in line with the existing cost of economic development.
“In all honesty, if you’re able to invest $10,000 to $25,000 for each manufacturing job, that’s not abnormal at all, he expressed. “It’s common for that average to go as high as $50,000 for highly trained people.”
“And I’ve seen state projects that are as high as $100,000 apiece. It depends on the type of job and the skill level. These would be skilled jobs.”
Virginia would have a reasonable boom for their penny because of an anticipated uptick in indirect jobs, particularly if an outside energy storage company comes in the region, he said.
“It would be a good impact if we are able to be successful, which I think we will be,” Belcher said, accentuating that energy storage is a natural segue.
“It wasn’t picked arbitrarily,” he pointed out about mining’s great reliability on batteries and electrification. “The local knowledge and skillsets might not be an exact match with electric vehicles, but there’s a foundation to build on. Not every region has that aptitude.”
Anticipation is not a strategy.
Protti-Lawrence is rejuvenated by the notion of a homegrown diversification project that could allow her neighbor to burgeon.
“We often continue to sell ourselves short,” she expressed her view on the ingrained trait of Appalachians. “This is about shifting that mindset. Instead of taking what the local politicians tell us we have to take, we can let them know what we actually see and want.”
On paper, she further added, it’s not difficult to cherish the idea of expanding the company’s item offerings. What is glorified is laborious work, consistency, and long hours it results in.
“Hope is not a strategy,” Philosophized the 41-year-old said. “You have to be able to take risks and make something your own.”
Her family business had grown on different levels since 1974 when her grandfather, Jim, invented in collaboration with his brother, Dale, as a welding shop in a three-car garage in Bluefield. Protti-Lawrence’s father and Jim’s son rose to the ranks before retiring in 2018.
For so long, her company’s products were the steel enclosure, shaped to save the battery cells powering the heavy equipment that is the lynchpin of underground coal and hard rock mining.
She and her husband have not only progressed the technology with laser tools but have also expanded their market abroad and progressed further into the energy sector and airline and forklift industries. Despite the ebbs and flows of business, they currently recruit 82 on an 80,000-square-foot factory floor.
Thus, the strategy of clean energy instead of dangerous fossil fuel is not lost when it comes to Protti-Lawrence.
“I’ve always been about taking care of Earth and mitigating climate change,” she pointed. “This is an excellent opportunity to come full circle and figure out how our business fits into that puzzle.”
Wells of Appalachian Voice does not deny the fear of coordinating such a titanic project haunts him when he jumps awake during wee hours.
“But then I remind myself that the opportunities are great and aligned with what we want to do,” he said about how the team has balanced both data and human needs. “The universe keeps sending us green lights. And that’s not just because of dumb luck.”